Behind the wheel with Cadillac's high-tech CUE

The system that will be available in 2013 cars mixes customizable displays with voice control

Get behind the wheel of any new car and you'll quickly grasp the importance that electronics and gadgetry play in the auto industry these days. Companies are starting to put just as much effort into the entertainment system as the mechanics and that means some pretty high-tech rides like the Cadillac XTS.

The soon-to-be-launched sedan packs Cadillac's grandly named CUE, or "Cadillac user experience" electronics system that mixes navigation and entertainment with safety features and voice recognition seen in Apple's Siri.

I recently had the chance to test-drive a 2013 Cadillac XTS with the system. (See a video of the CUE in use and the 2013 XTS on YouTube.)

It's centered around an 8-inch, touch-sensitive display at the top of the center console, but there are two other displays: a digital instrument cluster behind the wheel and a heads-up display that projects navigation directions into the bottom of the driver's field of view.

The touchscreen controls most of the main entertainment functions -- the basic radio, satellite radio, navigation system, air conditioning, the weather, and through a connected cellphone, the streaming music service Pandora.

Below the screen are a series of touch-sensitive buttons for controlling things like the audio volume and strength of the air conditioning fan, but the best button is the one at the bottom. Touch it and the entire lower portion of the central column -- the part underneath the 8-inch screen -- lifts up to reveal a spacious, 1.8-liter storage locker.

There's a USB connector -- lit so you don't have to search for it in the dark interior -- so a gadget can be kept plugged in and hidden from view. If it's a phone, the CUE system can access its data connection and route calls hands-free.

Another nice feature can be found along the bottom of the main screen. In that space the driver can store shortcuts. These can be direct links to radio stations, phone numbers or navigation destinations, and what's great is that they can be mixed. So, for example, a couple of favorite radio stations might sit alongside the address of the office for navigation and two direct-dial shortcuts to home and a friend.

But if you don't want to be bothered with the buttons, there's a voice recognition system. Based on technology from Nuance, it's a neat system that worked well during a brief test, but its implementation feels a little clunky.

"Device initializing. Command please," it says when the driver hits a button to start voice recognition -- not quite as user friendly as Siri's double beep on the iPhone.

Then throughout the process it feels more like the car is telling you what to say rather than you commanding things by voice.

"What type of destination?"

"Place of interest."

"Name the P-O-I nearby or say change location."

"Grocery stores."

"Grocery stores. Correct?"

"Yes."

Perhaps the displays that will most contribute to the feel of the car, at least for the driver, are those behind the wheel and on the windshield. Both the instrument panel and heads-up display are customizable. There are four main designs of instrument panel to choose from, and they can be further customized with the addition of things like a mini-navigation map or guide to what song is being played.

"Users are starting to expect this," said Matt Highstrom, interaction designer at General Motors. "It really gives you more of an integrated solution than our past solutions. It introduces that in a very user-friendly fashion so we've implemented the capacitive touchscreen. That lets users quickly navigate through their phone lists, just like they would do on an iPad device, and customize their layouts. This customization is something that really hasn't been done in our past."

Cadillac has also outfitted the driver's seat with a vibration system that shakes the seat when the car detects a pedestrian in front or behind the car while it's in drive mode. This could be especially effective in places like car parks, where there are a lot of people walking around and cars backing up and turning.

The CUE will be available in 2013 models of some Cadillac cars.

Martyn Williams covers mobile telecoms, Silicon Valley and general technology breaking news for The IDG News Service. Follow Martyn on Twitter at @martyn_williams. Martyn's e-mail address is martyn_williams@idg.com

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Martyn Williams

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