Inside Cadillac's New Connected Cars

Image: Cadillac

Here’s something auto makers should know about infotainment: Customers love new bells and whistles, but don’t force them to learn new technology.

Instead they want more of the familiar, says Mike Hichme, engineering manager at Cadillac. Enter Cadillac’s new infotainment control system that will underscore its line of connected cars. Taking a page from the iPad, the new system, CUE — short for Cadillac User Experience — focuses its user experience on the familiar smartphone and tablet interface — swipes and all. The result? The experience “is just like my phone or tablet,” Hichme said.

In addition to its debut here at the CTIA wireless convention in San Diego, the CUE will make an appearance next month at the L.A. Auto Show, and the system will begin making its way into vehicles next spring with the launch of the XTS, ATS and SRX sedans, eventually into all refreshed Cadillacs within a year.

Image: Cadillac

At the heart of this new system is a redesigned center stack, an 8-inch vibrant capacitive-touchscreen display and a deployable faceplate. When pushed, the motorized faceplate opens up to reveal a 1.8-liter storage area for devices, complete with two USB ports. Instead of the glove box, the center stack serves as a more logical location to hold and charge devices. CUE can pair up to 10 Bluetooth-enabled devices.

What’s noticeably missing though is a number of buttons. Whereas most cars have 16 to 20 buttons on the faceplate, Cadillac has streamlined the number of hardware buttons down to a measly four.

“A lot of customers get too confused by too many buttons,” said Stuart Norris, design manager at Cadillac. In contrast, Cue’s interior keeps it minimalistic: volume up, volume down, power and home. Instead most of the navigation is within the software-based interface.

The LCD touchscreen display is the industry’s first capacitive multi-touch interface. Capacitive refers to using electrodes to sense the conductive properties of objects, such as a finger. The screen can even read gestures through a 5-millimeter thick glove. Users can tap, flick, swipe and spread just like they do on smartphones and tablets, making it easy to scroll and search. The screen at 1,000 nits is more than twice the brightness of iPads and most cars’ navigation systems. Using haptic feedback, the software buttons show commands are carried out with both tactile and visual pulses.

Image: Cadillac

An app tray at the top of the screen provides shortcuts to a few applications. By default, the tray includes audio, navigation, phone and climate. While this can be customized to include any five shortcuts, “we think most people will leave it,” Hichme said. In addition to apps such as navigation and music, Pandora will also be integrated into CUE, its 12th auto partnership thus far.

Image: Cadillac

Cadillac attempts to simplify the visuals by showing only what users need. A clean, uncluttered layout shows key information when driving, but when the system senses a hand approaching, additional icons appear. For instance, CUE shows artist and track information in music mode, but if the driver wants to change to another playlist or station, those icons appear when a hand is nearby (see above) thanks to its proximity sensor. The icons shown can be customized and arranged by customers. “It shows all the information you need, nothing more than you need,” Norris said.

To make the system easier to navigate, CUE includes natural-language recognition. Barking commands at a car is often a clunky experience and requires drivers to learn a new set of rules. For example, if a driver wants directions, he starts by stating “navigation.” The car asks for a state. After it gets that information, it asks for a city. Then a street. CUE’s natural-language recognition allows drivers to instead say: “I’m lost. Get me home.” Or if you feel like changing the music, “Can you please put on the Rolling Stones?” or “I’d like to listen to the Rolling Stones.” This new technology makes communicating with the car more human-like and intuitive — yet another way it avoids forcing the user to learn something new.

Image: Cadillac

A 12.3-inch LCD gauge cluster, available on select models, can be customized to one of four layouts on the dash, one of them pictured above. These layouts package different car data, such as the speedometer, with navigation, phone and entertainment information.

When it comes to infotainment systems in cars, distracted drivers is often a point of concern. While some of the technology helps alleviate that — for instance, voice control with maps, music and phone — Cadillac’s new cluster aims to put the driver in control.

A five-way controller on the steering wheel’s right side navigates the cluster display, controls volume and cycles through favorites while the controller on the left manages cruise control, voice recognition, phone and heated steering wheel. These controls keep hands on the wheel and eyes on the road.

With today’s cutting-edge technology, infotainment and connectivity are already staples in modern cars. The CUE’s features aren’t so much revolutionary as they are refinements. And if they are as intuitive as Cadillac claims, these refinements serve to transform the car-tech experience from one filled with hassle to one with ease.

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