Today's cars have turned into traveling towers of Babel. Car infotainment systems freeze. Phones don't always sync. Bluetooth sound quality is poor. And simple tasks take too many touches and clicks.
At the core of the problem: The cars and devices speak different languages, with no common standard for operating systems or software.
"We have to make this work better," said Philip Abram, chief infotainment officer for General Motors Co. "We have to make this easier for our customers."
Problems with car electronics controls have overtaken mechanical issues, rattles and other defects to become the top complaint in the automotive reliability studies from Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates. Fixing this technological cacophony is now among the top challenges facing automakers, approaching efforts to improve fuel economy.
"The car manufacturers are really struggling with this," said Peter Skillman, vice president of design for Nokia's Here mapping unit. "The smartphone or tablet experience today is much better than the car infotainment system."
Standardization will be the hot topic Tuesday at the L.A. Auto Show, which this year has added a day to its schedule focusing solely on technology.
At the heart of the issue is the desire by these big consumer companies to protect their own turf.
Apple Inc., for example, is pitching a system to let drivers access a phone or tablet through a dashboard touch screen — but it would not work with Android phones. GM, for its part, doesn't want the screens in its cars looking like an Apple device rather than a GM-branded system.
Car companies are worried about giving away the store, said Ajay Juneja, chief technology officer and founder of Speak With Me Inc., an app developer.
"They want to own the one to two hours a day of space for advertising, or however it will be monetized in the future; they don't want Google or Apple to have that," Juneja said.
Another obstacle: The vehicle development cycle — typically years — is way out of sync with the much shorter development cycles for phones, tablets and other devices.
"Any time we release a car, within weeks there is a new phone out," said John Krafcik, chief executive of Hyundai Motor America.
Carmakers need to think of their vehicles more like phones, including making sure they have wireless connectivity, said Michelle Avary, director of technology strategy for auto electronics supplier Harman International Industries. She said Tesla Motors Inc. is breaking ground in this arena, updating its software over the air, and that's "starting to change people's expectations."
"Software bugs on phones get fixed constantly, but when they are in a car, that's now considered a warranty issue, and you get the dealers involved," Avary said.
Also needed is an industry standard for automakers and operating system companies, such as Apple or Google Inc., to use as the underlying architecture for both phones and cars, said James Buczkowski, director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford Motor Co. Companies could then tailor in-car interfaces to match their own brand identities and philosophies, he said.
It would cut costs for the companies and make life easier for software developers and consumers, he said. App developers are now stuck developing their programs for each phone operating system, and then tweaking them again for each of the car brands.
"They are lean and efficient and can't afford the burden of working with lots of different standards," Buczkowski said.
Consumers would also benefit by being able to use just one version of an app, even if they drive cars from different automakers, he said.
The quickest step would be to standardize the "middleware" in these system, said Joel Hoffmann, the strategist at Intel Corp.'s automotive solutions division and treasurer of Genivi Alliance, an industry group advocating for a standard Linux software suite for car electronics.
Middleware is the code that provides functions not visible to users — for example, how to communicate to Bluetooth or how the DVD plays a video for children in the back seat — but would still allow for some customization of driver interfaces by automakers, Hoffmann said.
"I don't think we realized how difficult it is for the automakers to agree," Hoffmann said.
Some argue that standardization is no cure-all for automotive technology.
GM's research, for instance, has found that the top technology complaint is about Bluetooth pairing — which operates on an industry standard.
"But it is really hard to do, because each phone implements it differently," GM's Abram said. "And that is not just a couple of operating systems; that is 500 different phones."
But even this issue is partly the auto industry's fault, said Krafcik, the Hyundai executive.
Automakers have skimped on the Bluetooth microphones they install in vehicles, and that's hurt the quality of phone calls and diminished the ability of the embedded speech-recognition programs to understand commands.
Hyundai is now installing better-quality microphones in its cars, something Krafcik called a simple fix for automakers.
Abram contends that consumers don't care about standardization — they care only that their phone works with their car.
"The fact that we use an operating system that is different than Ford is pretty irrelevant to someone sitting in an Impala," he said. "There isn't just one phone or one phone operating system for everybody — why should there be just one system for cars? That's not how business works. People differentiate. People select what works for them. There's not one solution for everybody."