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Apple's Siri Buttons On Mercedes, BMW, Jaguar Steering Wheels? Automakers Think Different

Siri is coming to Mercedes, GM, BMW, Jaguar, and others, but the connectivity the auto brands describe is a far cry from an iCar.

We know Steve Jobs dreamt of designing an iCar, and earlier this week we got a small hint at the big plans the Apple founder likely had for the auto industry.

At the company's WWDC keynote on Monday, Apple SVP Scott Forstall showed off a number of ways the company planned to unite mobile phones and automobiles, such as with turn-by-turn directions. But what really caught consumer and media attention is the new passenger Apple is adding to the car: Siri, the witty virtual assistant for the iPhone and now iPad, who will be making her way into a slew of vehicles in the coming year.

Since the announcement, we caught up with most all of the automakers now working with Apple—Mercedes, GM, BMW, Jaguar, to name just a few—to learn more about how Siri will integrate with your ride in the future, and when. Forstall said "a number" of automakers had committed to Siri integration within 12 months, but only a few told Fast Company that was realistic. We also learned that the steering wheel button that Apple hinted at in its presentation might not be as Apple- or Siri-specific as Jobs might have insisted on, given his celebrated obsession over branding. Instead, Apple's taking a small step into the auto industry that's not too different than when it promoted iPod connectivity in cars. It's a tiptoe strategy compared to the company's cutthroat approach to the TV, movie, and music industries. 

Driving Miss Siri

"No one wants to give up being connected when they get in the car. Even if we don't do something to keep them connected, they will still be using their iPhones and Androids, and that's not safe," says Mercedes-Benz USA spokesperson Donna Boland. Mercedes-Benz already offers drivers its mobile service and iPhone app, MBrace.

"We're going to be taking it a step further by allowing iPhone users to plug their iPhone into the car and access a Mercedes-Benz app that will then take over the screen," Boland adds. "It'll allow navigation, Facebook—whatever is on your iPhone; that includes if you have an iPhone 4S or higher with Siri, then you'll have Siri in the vehicle as well."

Essentially, Boland is describing the hands-free and eyes-free technology that Forstall showcased at WWDC. "Since Siri can talk back to you, you don't need to light up the screen of the iPhone, so you can keep your hands on the wheel and eyes on the road," Forstall said. To that end, as BMW product spokesperson Dave Buchko says, "Apple’s new eyes-free mode enables drivers to use Siri to interact with their iPhone by voice even in the car. Users can not only make a call but also tune in to their favorite music, send a text message, create reminders, set alarms, or create events without ever having to look for their phone."

But there's also a sense that we've only scratched the surface on what's to come. Audi would only say that it's "working closely with Apple to see how this might be integrated into our cars, but there's nothing firm to report at present."

Asked for more details on what the partnership between GM and Apple entailed, GM communications director Scott Fosgard said, "I wish I could elaborate but I can't." Fosgard did, however, offer some hints. "We want to amplify the smartphone," he says. "You know how you go into a conference room and someone who is making a presentation might take their laptop and project it on the screen, right? That's the concept of this solution in these cars."

Apple Steering Wheel?

As for how Siri will be physically accessed within the car, so far, it's unclear—but don't expect the wheel from the original iPod to replace traditional vehicle steering wheels. During his presentation, Forstall displayed what appeared to be a mockup for how Apple imagined drivers would access the system: "We're working with a number of car manufacturers to enable you to use a button right on the steering wheel to bring up Siri," he said.

However, it's not certain whether this button is designed specifically for Siri and is Apple-branded, or whether it's simply a generic button designed to produce connectivity with handheld devices. GM's Fosgard couldn't say how "it's ultimately going to look." But Boland, from Mercedes-Benz USA, confirms that there will not be some sort of Apple button on the steering wheel—rather, Mercedes will continue to use its own navigation buttons, which also work for Android-integrated services.

"Apple seems to be focusing on the fact that they're helping with this button that will be on the steering wheel," she says. "But we already have those buttons for hands-free operation of the system, so for us, there is no change—that's for other automakers who don't yet have that [button]."

BMW, too, appears to be using its own generic navigation buttons, referring to its work with Apple as "the integration of Siri using the BMW voice-command steering-wheel controls."

Of course, this could partly be due to the constraints of designing for cars, which have a much longer turnaround time than smartphones and software—anywhere from three to seven years. An industry source suspects this is likely because of the engineering process. "My gut is that I doubt it quite looks like what Apple put up on the screen, though maybe it will look like that [someday]," the source says.

Siri, Are We There Yet?

At WWDC, Forstall promised that "a number of auto manufacturers have already committed to delivering eyes-free Siri integration in the next 12 months." Yet of all of the automakers that Apple featured (Mercedes, BMW, GM, Land Rover, Jaguar, Audi, Toyota, Chrysler, Honda), just a few could confirm they were indeed working on delivering the technology within that timeframe. One automaker even seemed unaware that Apple had held an announcement.

"We haven't seen the statements attributed to Apple and we have nothing to announce at this time," a Chrysler spokesperson said by email. When pressed, the spokesperson would only add that "Chrysler does not comment on future product plans."

Others companies were much clearer on their vehicle roadmap. Mercedes-Benz's Boland promised integration "within the next 12 months—actually, a little over six months from now." GM said that its Chevrolet brand specifically and Apple had teamed up, and that consumers should expect a solution "within 12 months and maybe faster." And BMW said it is "planning to have Siri integration availably by mid-2013."

A spokesperson for Jaguar and Land Rover, both owned by the same company, confirmed the companies are working with Apple but would only add that they are "looking forward to introducing the [Siri] feature in future models." A spokesperson for Audi said the company has not yet confirmed that the 12-month timeframe "is realistic." And a spokesperson for Toyota said "Apple and Toyota are exploring the potential to introduce the Siri Eyes Free Mode (SEFM) interface into Toyota, Lexus, or Scion vehicles." However, the spokesperson added, "there are no particular applications planned at this time." (We were unable to reach Honda by press time.)

Least helpful in providing a clear roadmap for Apple's automotive intentions was Siri herself. "Siri, are you the future of automobiles?" we asked. Her response: "No comment." 

[Image: Flickr user Romain Ballez]

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