Whatever happened to Siri Eyes Free?

Ten months ago at WWDC 2012 Apple introduced Siri Eyes Free for integrating Siri voice interactivity with automobiles. On the screen behind Scott Forstall were the logos of nine auto manufacturers: Audi, BMW, Chrysler, GM, Honda, Jaguar, Land Rover, Mercedes, and Toyota. To date, only one manufacturer has delivered: GM. They committed in November to integrating Siri into the youth-oriented Chevrolet Sonic and Spark, demoed the integration at CES 2013, and cars equipped with the feature finally started rolling off the assembly line in Michigan last month. Chevy has already started advertising Siri Eyes Free integration for the Sonic on television across the United States.

For their part, Honda committed in January to adding Siri Eyes Free to the Honda Accord and Acura RDX and ILX at some point later this year. But what about the other manufacturers on that list? There's yet to be a peep from BMW about a Siri-enabled Mini Cooper or from Chrysler on when you'll be able to press a button on your Jeep Wrangler's steering wheel and get a reservation through Open Table. So, out of the nearly 200 models in their respective stables, why are there only two on the road and three more coming later this year after ten months after Siri Eyes Free was announced? Put simply: cars take a long time to make and are really quite expensive to make.

In the consumer technology industry we're used to watching flagship devices get updated annually, if not more frequently. These updates range from performance improvements and design tweaks to complete overhauls, but usually don't substantially affect the price from the previous year. The car industry is the same way, just usually spread out over several years. Take, for example, the 8th generation Honda Civic. It was introduced in 2005 as a 2006 model year vehicle and produced all the way through 2011. The car was largely unchanged through the first four years, receiving a facelift and minor tech upgrade with the 2009 model year, and persisting until the 2012 Civic landed. That's seven years of essentially the same car - the Civic 8 and Civic 8S, if you will.

Both electronics and automobiles have typically long development times. The next iPhone, the next next iPhone, and the next next next iPhone are all likely bumping around the labs in Cupertino, just as Honda's busy working on the mid-cycle refresh to the current Civic (probably coming in 3-5 years) and building the next from-scratch Civic people will be buying seven or eight years from now. The difference, however, is that while our smartphones and tablets are wondrously complicated devices, they're relatively simple compared to automobiles. My iPhone has a processor, GPU, RAM, flash storage, a battery, a touchscreen, two cameras, two speakers, two microphones, two ports, four radios, and five buttons. A brand new Civic comes with all of that, plus a few more speakers, seats, airbags, doors, an electric steering system, suspension, five-speed automatic transmission, and a four-cylinder internal combustion engine with hundreds of moving parts that have to work together in precise action because they're harnessing the power of exploding gasoline. In short: cars are massively complicated.

Siri Eyes Free introduction at WWDC

The problem with that is that the relatively speedy pace with consumer technology is so publicly advancing, the automotive industry is having trouble keeping up with expectations. Take, for example, the 2012 Honda Civic. It was a competent car, but because of the several-year lead time that goes into car development, Honda miscalculated and released a car that while a complete overhaul of everything that went into the previous generation Civic was a disappointment to consumers and the automotive press alike. So poor was the reaction that Honda rushed an emergency refresh out the door just a year later - likely pulling forward by a few years the planned mid-cycle refresh for the car and making their designers and engineers go bald in the process.

Further complicating the mechanical intricacy of the modern automobile is government oversight. Which isn't a bad thing, mind you - government oversight is why all new cars sold in the United States these days have airbags and seat belts and rearview cameras. But government oversight also puts additional restrictions on what manufacturers can do, from the technical aspects regarding pedestrian impact standards and allowable emissions to what car makers can put inside the cabin to keep you informed and entertained on your drive.

While Siri Eyes Free is intended to make it easier to use your iPhone and drive, the automakers are understandably hesitant in their implementation of new technologies. Government oversight of so-called "infotainment" systems in modern cars is just starting to ramp up - government oversight is notoriously slow to react to new technologies and prone to reacting the wrong way because it's something they just don't understand. But the byzantine labyrinth of regulations that automakers have to negotiate means that they tend to act prudently, often to the chagrin of their engineers and designers (Volvo, for example, has developed a system to actively block a portion of the light for their cars' high beams so they can be left on without blinding approaching traffic, but regulations in the US don't allow for headlights to be blocked in such a manner).

But within nine months of announcement, Chevy had updated the Sonic and Spark to include Siri Eyes Free. Neither car was due yet for a mid-cycle refresh and they didn't receive one. When there's incentive - as with cars decidedly marketed towards a younger audience - automakers aren't afraid to mix things up. Ford too hasn't been shy when it comes to updating their vehicles more frequently - the Mustang saw several upgrades over the past few years as Ford engaged in a battle for specs and sales supremacy with Chevy's Camaro.

That's when there's something at stake, be it capturing young buyers in the highly competitive compact car segment or fighting for a victory in the press and giving enthusiasts reason to crow over the competition. But elsewhere, upgrades and updates are slow to happen, responding to traditional development cycles and market pressures. And that's for one simple reason: cars are expensive, and getting more so.

The average new car these days clocks in at well over $20,000. That Chevy Sonic with Siri Eyes Free will costs a minimum of $17,050. Honda's 2013 Accord starts at $21,680. Your iPhone 5? That starts at $649.00 for an unlocked 16GB model. Smartphones and tablets might be expensive, but they're nothing compared to automobiles. Additionally, with the exception of high-end luxury and performance cars, the profit margins on cars are actually much slimmer than in the consumer electronics industry. The design, testing, and manufacturing investments for a new car total in the billions of dollars, plus hundreds of millions more spent every year on advertising, promotional discounts, and in-house financing.

Very few people upgrade to a new car every year or even every few years. They're expensive to make, and thus they're expensive to buy. For its size, the iPhone may too qualify as an expensive device, but a $200 upgrade with a two-year contract every other year isn't as hard of a pill to swallow as plunking down twenty g's for a new ride. Customers don't want or expect to be able to upgrade to a new model year car every year, so manufacturers have adjusted their processes to accommodate accordingly.

The offshoot is that generational upgrades typically produce a substantially better vehicle than the preceding generation. The long development times have allowed for highly refined performance, mileage, and build quality even at the low end of the line-ups from nearly every manufacturer. But that also means that it can take a long time for new technologies to trickle across the entire line-up. It's been several years since Bluetooth first started appearing in cars, and it's just now starting to become a standard feature in most new cars.

The complexity of adding a new feature like Siri Eyes Free to a car can vary depending on how the automaker wants to handle the implementation. If they just want to let Siri hijack the Bluetooth action button already present in most new cars, it's a matter of programming. But if they want to give interactive voice control on phones its own button - Siri's not the only game in town here; we'd be surprised if Google's Android voice control isn't also soon compatible with automotive Bluetooth applications - then not only is there software to worry about, there's adding a new button to the steering wheel with all of the thorough testing that goes along with that.

Eventually, assuming Apple is actively working with automakers, we wouldn't be surprised to see Siri Eyes Free become a standard feature across several manufacturers. The iPhone is obviously a popular device, but automakers need to feel the pressure to move implementation up sooner than Apple wanted - Forstall said on that stage back in June that those nine manufacturers were going to have Siri Eyes Free was going to see an implementation in their vehicles within a year. We can all but guarantee that's not happening.

There's at least one option, though, if you happen to want to add Siri Eyes Free to your car now. It's called Mobile Home, and it's brought to you by Texas-based Beanco Technology. The $59.00 lighter-sized black rectangle clips to your car's visor (or can mount elsewhere with the included velcro pads) and provides Siri Eyes Free functionality to your Bluetooth-equipped car (it can work with both integrated Bluetooth systems and third-party plug-in systems). Mobile Home - we really don't like the name for a device that goes in your car, but whatever - is essentially a Bluetooth 4.0 home button, and as you'd expect, pressing and holding it activates Siri. It's powered by a small cell battery, but with the low-power Bluetooth 4.0 battery, Beanco estimates Mobile Home should get up to six months of battery life.

Mobile Home sent me a sample of the product several weeks ago and I've been using it in my car, and it works exactly as you'd expect. My only complaints would be that it doesn't auto-pair with my phone without prompting (push the button), but that's a limitation of Bluetooth, iOS, and not being integrated with the car, and that it doesn't have any music control buttons. All of the other frustrations I experienced using Mobile Home are attributable to the limitations of Siri itself and the reality of yelling at a remote voice-interpreting server from inside a car hurtling down the highway at 70 miles per hour and all of the noise associated with doing such.

There's also the price, currently Mobile Home rings in at $59.00 with a supposedly special launch price discount of $20. That's essentially sixty bucks for a cell battery, Bluetooth radio, and a button. But having the luxury and safety benefits of being able to use Siri without picking up your iPhone to do it might be worth it, especially if you use Siri often in your car. An added safety benefit is that hooking up Mobile Home locks out the iPhone's keyboard, leaving Siri's voice input as your only input. You can still post to Twitter and Facebook, if that's your thing, you'll just have to say it instead of typing it.

Siri Eyes Free will likely eventually propagate across car line-ups. Automakers are slow to add new technologies, thanks to the elaborate nature of automobiles, restrictive government regulations, and the absurd cost that goes into designing and building these machines. And that's not even factoring in the cost and time of training dealerships to properly demonstrate these technologies and educating customers as to what they do and why they want them. With Chevy putting some marketing muscle behind having Siri integration in the Sonic, there might be a push to make Eyes Free integration happen faster with other manufacturers. But with multi-year generational life cycles, we wouldn't expect that to happen quickly.