• November 30, 2022

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Zoom announced today that Tesla owners will get a Zoom app for their cars, allowing them to make Zoom calls on the screen — while the car is parked, of course. In a concept video, they show somebody doing a call while charging their car. Perhaps some day, if Tesla gets the breakthroughs needed to deliver self-driving, one might even make calls while riding in a robocar. (Today, it is forbidden to show video in a moving car in view of the driver, for good reasons.)

This particular app demonstrates a number of surprisingly wrong principles.

You could do this already, on your phone

It’s been possible to do a Zoom call in a car for many years of course, and you’ve almost surely been in a call with somebody in their car, using their phone. My phone has a stand/case and so I can even mount it on the steering wheel. The screen is small, of course, but there is excellent eye contact. Zoom doesn’t mention this but Teslas only have a low quality interior monitoring camera in the rear-view mirror which will produce a video image with no eye contact at all.

But the key error here is that the phone is the clear winner for all apps, communications and media, with two key exceptions — screen size and antenna quality. While the gear in the car may be more expensive, and Tesla is vastly better about updating software in the cars than other carmakers, the reality is the phone always wins because we get a new one every 1-2 years. No matter how good the hardware in a car is, the phone will soon do it better, if it doesn’t already.

Other automakers had to be dragged kicking and screaming into this realization. People have their music, their communications and more already set up in their phone, configured to them and with a UI they know. They never wanted a different, inferior system in the car at a higher price, though that’s what automakers tried to sell them. They want the phone to be able to use the car’s speakers, sensors, screen and buttons as peripherals, with the phone in charge. This was the world of Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, though the first versions of those tools here actually pretty dreadful, they still gave customers what they actually wanted — the familiar, superior world of their phone. This battle was first fought over navigation. Carmakers sold people $2,000 navigation packages which they turned off to use Waze.

This was true even though the in-car system got some immediate advantages, such as access to the car’s better antennas for GPS, the odometer and more, as well as the big screen with buttons meant for use while driving. The hardware had advantages but the software sucked.

Tesla the computer company

Tesla is the car company that thinks most like a computer company. As such, they did a good job on their in-car computer. Good enough that they thought they were immune from the inevitable superiority of the phone. As such, they are one of the few cars that doesn’t support Carplay or Android. Their navigation system UI is quite good, but their navigation is inferior to Waze. Their web browser is just dreadful. Their UI has become confusing and changed from time to time, and the fixed touchscreen monitor is actually hard to use in a car bumping down the road.

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Carplay and Android Auto are not ideal, but the philosophy of letting the car be peripheral to the phone is the right one. To do that right, you need to give it full access to not just screen and speakers, but control. (For example, navigation systems need to mute or “duck” the audio from the radio when giving an important piece of advice.)

Tesla models 3 and Y only have one screen though, and it has to work even with no phone. That makes the problem harder, as giving full control of the screen would mean the phone would need to also display the speed and invoke critical controls like the defogger. A car like the Tesla might still reserve part of the screen (but give the phone all needed interfaces.) That doesn’t matter when the car is stopped though, when it’s time to do Zoom calls, watch Netflix and play games. Then, the phone is the winner if it can use that bigger screen.

Tesla may have sold a few million cars. But there are billions of iPhones and billions of Android phones out there. These are the platforms where applications will be developed and supported.

Because Tesla is better at being a computer than other companies, they fell for the trap that they could compete with the phone, they can’t.

Call while charging

In Zoom’s example, the driver takes a video call while charging her car. One of the most important things to understand about electric car charging is that while it takes longer than filling up with gas, if you can make it happen while you are doing something else you already needed to do, it actually takes less time out of your day than going to a gas station. This is an essential component to the goal of making an EV superior in almost every way to a gasoline car, which is needed to bring about the end of fossil fuels for cars. While some dream of fast charging in 5 minutes, to compete with the 3 minute time of gas fill-ups, that’s always going to be expensive and involved, since it requires megawatts.

Sleeping and eating are the best things to do while charging, but until we have self-driving, using the internet and consuming media are good alternatives. Just about everybody these days spends a lot of time doing this, perhaps more than they want, and charging can be a good time to do it. A nice screen can help, and for many a keyboard could make some sense too — though cars don’t usually have a good place to put one.

Fast WiFi also makes sense as an amenity at charging stations. In remote areas, Starlink could come to the rescue, which is an obvious edge for Tesla, as the CEO of Tesla has some influence with the CEO of SpaceX.

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