First there was the iPad. Then there was an onslaught of other tablet devices. Now, they're showing up in cars.
Since the iPad debuted in 2010, technology forecasters have been predicting that tablet-style gizmos will become a ubiquitous hallmark of modern life, which finally seems to be happening as many top gadget makers roll out tablets in every price range. So it's no surprise that Cadillac has now introduced a tablet-style interface in most of its cars — called Cue — that relies on touch-screen controls and the casual flick and swipe commands that help give tablets their cool factor. Something similar will probably spread to other General Motors brands, if not all cars, eventually.
I spent a week testing out Cue in Cadillac's new XTS, a large sedan meant to compete with luxury makes like the BMW 5 series and the Mercedes-Benz E Class. The unstated premise behind a lot of modern technology is that it will make your life better, but first it will complicate things for a while. Cue lived up to that.
I declined a briefing on Cue when a Cadillac representative dropped off the car, figuring that I've been driving cars long enough to master whatever the automakers can throw at me. I should have accepted the briefing. Within my first 15 minutes on the highway, I was struggling like a novice driver trying to master a stick shift. I couldn't find the A/C button, so warm air was blasting out at me on a muggy, 80-degree day. Then my phone started to ring, but for some reason I hadn't set up the Bluetooth connection correctly, so I ended up rooting around for my phone in a bag.
At that point, the seat cushion began pulsing my rear end, a feature I later learned was the "safety alert seat" warning me of potential danger. I was probably drifting out of my lane as I fiddled with the phone and climate settings, with the lane-departure warning system noticing the drift and letting me know by jolting my rump. But at the time, I felt vaguely assaulted and probably drove even more erratically. Once I found the right button, I turned off the vibrating seat.
It's facile to ding new technology for throwing you a curve the first time you try it, and Cue has earned some early dings. Several reviewers, for example, have faulted Cue's "haptic" controls, which sense the touch of your finger, for a brief delay that can lead you to push the button twice, then end up retracing your steps — while you're supposed to be watching the road, not the car's console.
But the real test of new technology is whether it becomes intuitive and pleasing once you get used to it. On that scale, I'd give the Cue a B- (although I might raise the grade if I actually owned a car with the system and had years to learn all the features and shortcuts). Like other multi-function systems on fancy cars, Cue is designed to provide loads of functionality without cluttering the dash with so many knobs and buttons that it begins to resemble the cockpit of a jet. It accomplishes that with a minimalist array of physical dashboard controls, including a "home" button for the Cue system, and a digital screen with app-style icons for audio, climate, phone and other functions.
You can customize how you configure the screen, just as you can on an iPad. An "app tray" on the screen keeps your most commonly used commands handy. Tapping an icon calls up a wide range of menu options — including a bunch you'll probably never need. Cue allows you to sync up to 10 different Bluetooth devices, for example, so you can alternate among all the smartphones and iPods in the family. There are 60 preset buttons for storing radio stations, phone numbers and frequent navigation destinations.
Swiping the screen in various ways allows you to do things like call up your list of presets, or hide them, if they're not needed. You can pinch or spread your fingers to zoom the optional navigation map in and out. To change radio volume, you trace your finger along a metal bar beneath the digital screen, which mimics the digital volume control on an iPad. It's pretty cool, once you've practiced for a while.
Cue suffers, however, from the same system overload that dogs most other feature-packed automobiles. BMW and Mercedes encountered this problem a decade ago, with their iDrive and Comand systems that required paging through layers of digital menus to accomplish something that used to be as simple as pressing one button on the dashboard. Those systems are cleaner today, yet it still drives me mad trying to figure out how to mute the voice prompts on a Mercedes' navigation system.
Safety advocates have legitimate concerns about whether all the gizmology migrating into cars makes drivers more distracted, and driving more dangerous. Studies so far have been inconclusive, but drivers themselves have complained about too much complexity in cars. Consumer Reports, for instance, has panned Ford's MyTouch system, prompting Ford to promise to make it simpler.
Luxury makes tend to insist that their drivers are sophisticated enough to handle the complexity. Most BMW, Mercedes and Audi systems, for instance, require you to turn a knob to navigate around the screen, because they don't want you mussing their beautiful digital display with fingerprints. Lexus uses a mouse-like device that you press down, to "click," once you've highlighted the menu option you want to select. The Cue touch screen dispenses with that interface, since you can make selections by tapping right on the screen. Fingerprints didn't seem to bother Steve Jobs when he designed the iPad, but if the smudges on your Cue become unseemly, Cadillac provides a chamois cloth you can use to wipe them off.
There's also a Cue app for the iPad that includes a dozen tutorials — calibrated to "beginner," "advanced," and "expert" users — along with 16 how-to video clips. If you buy a Cadillac equipped with Cue, I recommended taking the tutorials. Oh, I almost forgot to mention: While operating Cue, you still have to drive the car.
Rick Newman is the author of Rebounders: How Winners Pivot From Setback To Success. Follow him on Twitter: @rickjnewman.