The panelists agreed that most motorists don't need the myriad choices that carmakers offer, and that those choices are not only confusing, they can be dangerously distracting.
Customers typically listen to a few radio stations and call just a few people. Carmakers need "features intervention," Lyon said.
Rather than imitate smartphones, carmakers could look to their history for examples of how to get it right. He showed a picture of a 1964 Ford Mustang radio. The knob on the right is for volume, the one on the left for tuning, with the buttons across the center for radio presets.
"Volume requires a knob," he said.
Lyon suggested a simple central touch screen with just a few options customized to the motorist.
Too often, complexity creeps into systems. He showed a slide of the first generation of BMW's oft-criticized iDrive system. In 2002, when the system was launched, there was a single controller knob on the console with no surrounding buttons. Over the years, BMW kept adding buttons until the current version, which he described as a "button farm."
David Taylor, director of connected services at Panasonic Automotive Systems Co. of America, said there is "an explosion" in consumer services and expectations. Automakers' challenge is to meet those expectations consistently around the globe without spending a fortune. That requires being prudent and building a budget to design what is needed and leave out what is not, he said.
"We need to get away from worthless features in a car," he said.
Taylor urged carmakers to follow three principles when designing in-car systems: Make them fast, easy and intuitive.
Andrew Hart, director of advanced research for SBD, a connected-car consultancy, said technology is moving so fast that carmakers often design new systems before they understand what works and doesn't work with their current systems.
In striving to keep up with competitors in a "culture of incrementalism," carmakers talk about features they will add in their next-generation systems, he said.
"They never talk about what they should remove," he said. Nor do they have a budget to fix system problems, he added.
"It's surprising how many people at OEMs don't know how their systems work," Hart said. That's a sharp contrast to companies such as Apple and Google, where employees are the best advertisements for their products, he said.
Lyon said carmakers are much better organized to execute vehicle programs than to design in-car infotainment systems. If they "did car programs that way, it would be a disaster," he said.
Hart said if carmakers don't improve their systems, others will take over the job: "Companies from outside the industry are starting to smell blood."