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Apple fans, don't expect a Siri button in your car anytime soon

Opening its World Wide Developer Conference, Apple's suggestion that a number of automakers would put "Siri buttons" in their cars shows more smoke than fact.

Siri will be able to talk to you through your call soon.
James Martin/CNET

Among the deluge of new features Apple talked up in the keynote for WWDC, integrating Siri with cars, in conjunction with automakers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Audi, Honda, and GM, generated a lot of buzz. Siri has proved a popular voice command feature in the latest iOS, and so naturally users would want that functionality integrated into their cars.

But, knowing how the auto industry works, I was skeptical about a number of aspects of this announcement. I could not believe automakers would actually put dedicated buttons just for Siri in their cars. They would also not necessarily want to let drivers operate all the features available through Siri within the car's interface. You see, there is a little conversation going on among automakers, the Department of Transportation, and the general public about distracted driving. If an automaker were to open up all the capabilities of an iPhone, social networking, texting, what have you, through Siri, those same automakers would likely be included in lawsuits brought by victims in distracted driving accidents.

A Fast Company reporter, appropriately named Austin Carr, did some digging in an article titled "Apple's Siri Buttons On Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar Steering Wheels? Automakers Think Different." The reporter went to the automakers for reactions, finding that none of them quite supported Apple's version of how Siri would be implemented in their cars. And, as I would expect, the 12-month timeline is almost entirely refuted.

Although automakers have gotten much better in recent years about keeping pace with the electronics industry in building cabin technology features, there is still quite a bit of lag. Almost every automaker works on three- to five-year product cycles for cars, and will not update the cabin technology in a model until the next major update. The only exception I have seen is BMW, which seems to be doing almost yearly updates to its dashboard electronics no matter where a car is in its product cycle. The X5 I recently reviewed is a good example of this sort of progress.

So the idea that automakers would be popping Siri buttons into car steering wheels anytime soon is highly unlikely.

I cannot tell how many times I have seen a cool new feature demonstrated by an automaker, then waited well over a year to see it come out in a production model. And I would not fault the automakers for taking the time to build out new electronic features. They do a lot of testing under far harsher conditions than Apple ever would have subjected an iPhone to. If something does not work on your iPhone, you may temporarily get worked up, and even post some harsh words on Facebook. But most of you will still buy more Apple products. Automakers have to deal with brand reputations that last decades because people hang onto cars a lot longer than a typical electronic device. And then there is the used car market.

Traditionally, Apple has also not been eager to work with automakers. The company has kept its new products very closely held, and with the release of every new iPhone, automakers have had to play a game of catch-up, making sure the devices worked with the current implementations for Bluetooth pairing and audio-source integration. With Apple's new management, it may be more willing to let automakers in on its development cycle. The mention of Siri's automotive integration might indicate a more partner-friendly atmosphere.

In one regard, Apple and automakers are very similar. Both want to keep strict control over their user experience. Apple may want to make the iPhone the center of all car infotainment features. The iPhone mounted in the center of the dashboard in the mockup photo shown at the keynote seems to indicate that intention. However, automakers have always had control over the features and buttons in their cars, and they are not likely to give that up. Certainly BMW would not want to give up the potential competitive edge of its cabin electronics over Audi or Mercedes-Benz, by having the iPhone be the center of infotainment no matter which car you drove.

Finally, there is the fact, not recognized at the WWDC, that there are other smartphones out there. If you buy the Apple hype, then anyone who wants to use navigation, communication, or audio in future cars will have to own an iPhone. Automakers are going to want to make their cabin electronics work with the widest range of devices. Toyota is one good example, offering its Entune app for iPhone, Android, and BlackBerry.

Instead of a Siri or Apple-branded button in cars, we are much more likely to see a quiet integration. After Apple first released Siri, complaints arose in a variety of online forums about how it would not work with existing voice command systems in cars. Automakers will probably create a gateway in their in-cabin software, letting voice command systems work better with Siri, and any other smartphones on the market.