Cadillac ATS Delivers American Automotive Innovation

In January, The New York Times wondered aloud why Apple did not make the iPhone in America. The story heaped a torrent of commentary and scrutiny on Silicon Valley’s most valuable company. Whether you think manufacturing in the U.S. is right or not for Apple, Cadillac is proving that American-made technology can compete with the best.

The new Cadillac ATS was designed to be a luxury car world-beater - a tall order that required catching up to the likes of BMW’s 3-series and Mercedes’ C-class. But the folks at General Motors took a unique approach to the job and the ATS definitely arrives at the head of its class.

What Cadillac did is often overlooked in Silicon Valley. To help design the Cadillac User Experience (CUE), the company assembled a team of designers, engineers and software developers to shadow drivers while observing them in their natural habitat.

This “contextual design” technique required team members to accompany actual consumers, an eye-opening experience. The shadow team was able to identify several different driving styles, which were categorized under a pseudonym. One type of driver, dubbed “Spencer,” always needed to check text messages immediately, while ‘‘Emily” liked listening to music, whether on her phone, iPod or flash drive.

Cadillac spokesperson David Caldwell tells me, “We took a hard look at what carmakers call 'infotainment.' Everyone’s doing that, that’s sort of par for the course. We took a bit of a riskier approach: Is there something we can do that says ‘hey these guys are doing something different?’”

Enter A New GUI

What became clear quickly is that most drivers are distracted by a myriad of bells, beeps and whistles emitted by our digital lifestyle tools. So Cadillac engineers set out to develop a less invasive type of user interface, one that communicates via seat vibrations.

You might call it “BUI,” but GM prefers the less colloquial Cadillac Safety Alert Seat. The Alert Seat is able to tell a driver whether an object is nearby on the left by triggering a pulse on the left side of the seat.

Cadillac also joins another innovative force in technology: the open source movement. The CUE system runs on a triple-core ARM 11 processor and uses a Linux platform so developers can help keep the architecture fresh with new extensions.

CUE powers both an 8-inch capacitive touch screen, reportedly the first non-resistive display in an automobile, and a second, 12.3-inch fully configurable instrument cluster mounted behind the steering wheel.

Another automotive engineering feat was the addition of haptic feedback. There’s a proximity sensor, which brightens the display when a driver’s hand approaches the system’s user interface and a touch screen that provides both pulse feedback and the ability to swipe and pinch.

Living In America

That producing a product as complex as a car with its myriad of alloys and steel and hundreds of technology features is not a trivial procedure is underscored by this Esquire article, How to Build an American Car, which breathtakingly describes the production process.

So would Apple benefit from building the iPhone in America? There are two trends to consider here. First, it’s increasingly likely that volatility in the oil business will cause fuel prices to double in the not-too-distant future. That will make shipping even a high-value iPhone from China via FedEx a less attractive proposition.

Another is that increasingly the added value in any consumer product is software. And in this area, America still out-shines the rest of the world although domestic educational obstacles and the ascent of India may diminish that advantage.

Still though, I’m happy to see that once-considered-dead General Motors can not only match global competitors in engineering but also reinvent an area where automobiles will increasingly have to shine - the human-machine interface. Don’t believe me? I have just one word to say, iDrive.

Happy motoring America, and please contribute software innovations for the automobile and computer revolution to our Spigit innovation crowdsourcing engine.