In the latest salvo of the in-car technology wars, Cadillac has launched its much-touted CUE (Cadillac User Interface) system as standard equipment on the new XTS luxury sedan arriving in showrooms now.
Much like MyFord Touch, CUE uses a combination of an eight-inch touch screen, a touch-sensitive panel below it, and steering-wheel mounted controls in place of conventional knobs and buttons to control a variety of climate, audio, navigation, and other functions. Unlike the Ford system, CUE limits voice controls to navigation and audio selections (leaving out climate commands) and it adds haptic feedback, which provides a small fingertip vibration when a control is touched, to the capacitive touch control. This feedback is intended to help drivers keep their eyes on the road more than a conventional flat screen would.
Cadillac has loaned us a new XTS sedan so that we could try CUE for ourselves. (We'll buy a test car soon.) Out of the box, we're thinking CUE may not be ready for prime time, even if it appears to be easier to use than MyFord Touch. Frankly, that's not saying much.
To start, while the customizable screen looks nice and lets you sort icons to your liking and delete ones you don't use, we found that scrolling through menus can be slow and complicated. Plus, the transitional graphics between screens may be interesting to look at, but they take far too long to run through their animation, tempting the driver to watch the screen instead of the road.
Even though it looks like you should tap the raised "metal" sections on the panel, you're actually supposed to tap just above them where the labels appear. And don't tap too fast—you need to wait to register the haptic feedback. Just as well, don't tap too lightly. Making a 10-degree swing in temperature adjustment takes a lot longer doing all of this compared to twisting a temperature dial.
The haptic feedback is nice, but we found that you still have to take your eyes off the road to make sure you're tapping the right spot. Forget about blindly reaching for a big knob because there aren't any. Having to relearn how to use a button just for the sake of looking "high tech"—as there are no functional advantages to these flush controls—is misplaced progress.
Cadillac aimed to model CUE after the input methods on a smart phone or tablet. While swiping and dragging works pretty well on those devices, keep in mind that they're not intended to be used when driving. Also, it's frustrating that CUE only partly mimics those controls. If you want to adjust radio volume on your phone, for example, you just tap to the right of the current position. CUE requires you to tap on the right side of the control. Plus, dragging fingers to stretch the navigation screen gives a very slow response, rather than the instant screen change on the phone. And while sliding a finger left or right works to make some adjustments, a horizontal bar on the screen that looks like an adjustment may not be one at all, adding to confusion.
Comprehensive steering-wheel mounted buttons let you make changes on the fly. Sometimes this is quicker and easier than using the screen and center stack. But you can wind up wading deep into on-screen menus, like using it to browse through songs on your phone. The steering wheel toggle is really fussy; we found that pushing straight-in to "select" an entry only works part of the time.
The Cadillac rep who demonstrated the system assured us that CUE is still evolving, and updates would be ongoing and easily passed on to buyers. Sounds like what Ford has said and done, albeit not quick enough to stay ahead of negative owner feedback. In the race to market, manufacturers would sometimes benefit from holding off new systems until they are truly ready.
Cadillac has evidently been paying attention to some of the unfavorable responses MyFord Touch received from both the media and Ford customers, and the brand is working to ease the transition to CUE by adding specially-trained advisers to its customer service centers and to OnStar phone banks. It is also including an iPad with every new XTS, preloaded with an app that lets owners practice using the system in the comfort and safety of their home. That's all well and good, but we can't help but note that dials and knobs normally don't require so much instruction and telephone support, in addition to being easy to use on the fly. (You can download the iPad app and try it yourself.)
Cadillac is clearly hoping for some younger and more tech-savvy buyers for their new large sedan than in the past; GM really needs this strategy to work. You have to wonder how well its established owner demographic, traditionally made up largely of buyers seemingly unable to master the art of turning off a directional signal, are up for all this new technology. We could see current owners of Cadillac's big sedans looking at the XTS - and winding up with a nice used, heavily-depreciated, and simpler DTS instead. Or perhaps they'll switch to a less-complicated brand.
CUE appears to be here to stay. It rolls out on the new ATS small sedan soon, which will attract a more youthful, tech-centric audience than the XTS, and the rest of the lineup will follow. Maybe, as BMW learned with iDrive, the best answer will be to slowly reintroduce some of those more-familiar hard buttons and knobs back in over time. It says something when many of us at the track would rather deal with the current iteration of iDrive rather than cope with CUE or MyFord Touch. Maybe with some automotive technology, you have to go forward in order to go back.