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Automotive: Industry Drowning in Tech

Many automotive OEMs are completely unsuited to harnessing the flood of technological innovation that their industry is now drowning in.
Automotive: Industry Drowning in Tech
Lincoln Digital Experience (Image: Fold)

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By Colin Barnden

What’s at stake:
Having wasted a decade chasing full autonomy, CES suggests many automotive OEMs are set to repeat the same mistakes by flooding the vehicle cockpit with technology.

As with every year, bodies heal, minds recover, and the thoughts of those hardy souls who walked the Las Vegas Convention Center for the annual CES tech circus turn once more to that most important question: What did we learn?

One conclusion from 2024 is clear: Many automotive OEMs are completely unsuited to harnessing the flood of technological innovation that their industry is now drowning in.

The CES press days began with a VW demonstration of Cerence Chat Pro, a voice assistant apparently integrating ChatGPT, but which performed so poorly that it is guaranteed to drive any driver to distraction. Literally. We can watch the full demonstration here:

VW and Cerence demonstrate a voice assistant integrating ChatGPT. (Source: Volkswagen)

Which begs the question: How is Chat Pro more useful than any other voice assistant?

The answer appears to be that it isn’t.

At CES this year, the industry hype surrounding robotaxis and robotrucks was largely muted in the automotive-focused West Hall, no doubt a result of the very public failures of GM Cruise in 2023, with autonomous tech looking about as popular as Gonorrhea.

In its place, the obvious automotive-related hot-topic was software-defined vehicles. It seemed like everyone was focused on it, talking about it, and demonstrating it.

But look closer, and we can see the problem now facing the auto industry: While everyone was showing and talking about software-defined vehicles, no one made a compelling case for what the groundbreaking software is that is going to define these vehicles.

CES was the easy part of demonstrating how incredible it is to install SoCs from Nvidia and Qualcomm offering unheard of quantities of processing power – at least unheard of in the automotive realm. High resolution graphics, HD audio, and 4K pillar-to-pillar displays were all on show.

But demonstrations of something really meaningful to do with all the processing and all that tech, and that customers will actually find useful and want to pay for? That was missing, because that is the problem which is going to prove much harder to solve.

No customer will ever walk into a dealership and ask to buy a software-defined vehicle.

Specifying a vehicle with a whopping-TOPS processor is like going to an all-you-can-eat buffet without having eaten for a week. You will fill up alright, but probably choke on the over-supply of food.

No customer will ever walk into a dealership and ask to buy a software-defined vehicle. For OEMs, the challenge isn’t about integrating as much new stuff as possible onto these SoCs but figuring out what to do with the flood of innovation.

The toughest part is putting all the pieces together in a way that doesn’t overwhelm drivers with gimmicky tech that distracts them from the driving task.

At CES, VW showed perfectly how to get this wrong: Gen AI? Tick. ChatGPT? Tick. Useful? No.

The next big thing
At VW HQ in Wolfsburg, Germany, they clearly don’t read The Ojo-Yoshida Report, because if they did, they would already understand “Steve’s Law,” attributed to Apple’s Steve Jobs, who explained:

You’ve got to start with the customer experience and work backwards to the technology. You can’t start with the technology and try to figure out where you are going to sell it.

As we have discussed repeatedly, OEMs are failing to understand the differences between technology, and the useful application of technology, as it applies to the automotive environment.

Dreams of Level 5 became promises for Level 4, followed by the dawning realization that for Level 3, ‘no customer buys it.’

A case in point is SAE J3016 and the “race to Level 5,” which has beguiled the auto industry for most of the last decade and wasted many billions of dollars along the way.

Dreams of Level 5 became promises for Level 4, followed by the dawning realization that for Level 3, “no customer buys it.” But this served to leave everyone pursuing “Level 2+” which isn’t even described in J3016 anyhow. What a colossal waste of time and effort.

Broadly speaking, the industry hasn’t progressed meaningfully on autonomy since Tesla’s Autopilot was introduced a decade ago. GM is now furiously back-pedaling, having accepted its hands-free Ultra Cruise system will never be introduced and has rolled Ultra Cruise into Super Cruise, which was launched in 2017.

So, privately-owned passenger vehicles won’t drive themselves anytime soon. This begs the question: What is an OEM to do with all that whopping-TOPS processing power offered by automotive SoCs developed by Nvidia and Qualcomm?

The answer: Put it into the vehicle cockpit.

Which brings us neatly to CES 2024 and the new race among OEMs to drop as much technology as possible into the cockpit. As we can already see, some OEMs are clearly more au fait with Steve’s Law, and how it defines the customer experience, than others.

BMW looks to be far in the lead already with its Panoramic Vision system, which enables the driver to keep their eyes on the road by displaying information onto an augmented reality head-up display, controllable with eye-gaze tracking.

BMW shows off next iDrive System (Source: BMW)

BMW is completely redefining the customer experience in the cockpit, by changing the human-vehicle interface to use a combination of eye-gaze, gesture, voice, and touch. We will see more in the 2025 “Neue Klasse” platform featuring iDrive 10 when it is released next year.

In comparison it is BMW’s German siblings that look to be at the bottom of the rankings, with the VW/Cerence Chat Pro demo winning this year’s CES booby prize, while Mercedes continues to take the translation of a “smartphone-on-wheels” far too literally and thinks integrating TikTok is the way ahead.

Merecedes integrates TikTok (Source: Mercedes-Benz)

In the U.S., Ford and GM have now introduced strikingly similar cockpit designs to each other, with both adopting pillar-to-pillar screens.

Automotive: Industry Drowning in Tech
Lincoln Digital Experience (Image: Ford)

The main difference between the latest offerings from the two behemoths appears to be that Ford is committed to supporting Apple CarPlay, and GM isn’t. Way to go, Detroit.

Both companies are now far behind BMW in advanced cockpit development, which is the inevitable outcome of significant management focus and resource sunk into efforts to develop full autonomy, with Ford backing Argo AI and GM backing Cruise.

Windows Vista
Having navigated eras of mechanical, electrical, and electronic evolution, the automotive industry is now confronted with the hardest development of all: software.

The software-defined vehicle is perhaps best thought of as a form of art. The SoC is the blank canvas, the paints and the brushes are the software. But what differentiates a masterpiece from a mess is the creativity and imagination of the artist.

Consequently, the software era presents OEMs with the possibilities to delight with beautifully designed and intuitive user interfaces, and equally infinite opportunities to infuriate with slow and buggy features that literally drive their customers to distraction.

Like the all-you-can-eat buffet, some OEMs are destined to fill up their vehicles with the wrong mix of software and features. Ahead lies the automotive equivalent of Windows Vista, and which OEM gets there first, we will know soon enough.

We don’t know the future of the automotive industry, but it looks increasingly like a vehicle that people drive, and which features a customer experience in the cockpit controlled by eye-gaze, gesture, voice, and touch, that is actually useful in supporting the driving task.

OEMs that want to look forward need first to look back to the wisdom in the words of Steve Jobs and to remember that the customer experience always takes precedence over technology. That was true in the era of computing, true for smartphones, and it is true now for the automotive industry.

BMW, by reimagining the cockpit through the lens of the customer experience, is currently in a league of its own. As we saw at CES, other automotive OEMs appear at risk of simply drowning their customers in tech.

Bottom line:
Passenger vehicles are not smartphones-on-wheels. OEMs must remember that their product weighs several tons, can travel at highway speed, and in close proximity to vulnerable road users. Loading the cockpit with poorly designed software that distracts the driver is unsafe and will infuriate customers.

Colin Barnden is principal analyst at Semicast ResearchHe can be reached at

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