Cadillac has one of the fanciest car entertainment system on the market today. It's called CUE, short for Cadillac User Experience, and there is a good reason why you may want to pass on this system.
You may remember that I first reviewed CUE several months back as part of Cadillac's new luxury XTS sedan, in which I wrote that CUE was an impressive system, but it may collide with the ideas of a car entertainment system of the XTS' target group - people who would replace their old DTS. I also suggested that the new compact sedan ATS may be a better target for CUE, since the ATS is positioned of a rival for the BMW 3-series and a considerably younger buyer group. As it turns out, I was wrong and Cadillac may want to revisit the entire CUE idea. As it stands, it just doesn't work.
CUE and the ATS
CUE is a centralized car entertainment system that removes all physical buttons from the center dash, focuses on an 8-inch touch screen with haptic feedback and a total of 17 touch-sensitive spaces (19 in the higher-end models that come with seat ventilation). The idea is to somewhat copy the user experience of the iPad and bring it to your car, as the touch screen supports multi-touch, as well as sliding and pinch-zooming gestures.
The ATS is Cadillac's most-dynamic car with the most serious pitch against European rivals yet. The vehicle is only slightly bigger and heavier than Chevrolet's Cruze compact sedan. However, it was not a 3-series rival with its anemic 2.5 liter (202 HP) power plant that sounds more suited for a sub-$20K car than for a premium sport sedan. Our ATS had a base sticker of $37,590 for the ATS 2.5 Luxury. The CUE system rings it at $1,295, special Thunder Gray paint and the cold weather package brought the bottom line to $41,375.
CUE almost certainly will confuse you when turned on for the first time. Its idea to remove complexity has resulted in one of the most complex system on the market today. However, there is one specific upside of CUE: thanks to a proximity sensor, the screen will remove clutter after a delay 10 seconds after last usage, which results in a beautiful display with a resolution of 800x480 pixels. For example, the map display is stunning and the best I have seen in any car to date. The center screen also plays well with the configurable driver display which has a portion of three displays that can be configured with different content types independently from each other. In combination with the main CUE screen, it has beautiful and crystal clear graphics and shows content that can extend the CUE display.
The system is also space saving. the lack of mechanical parts allowed Cadillac to implement the technology into a panel that can be lifted via a motorized mechanism, which reveals a small storage compartment behind its dash controls.
Much of the review focus of the ATS is strangely anchored by the CUE system, since it determines a substantial part of the driving experience. Over the period of one week and several different drivers, no one especially liked CUE and the comments were exclusively in negative territory. How can a touch screen that we enjoy so much in phones and tablets be perceived so negatively in a car?
CUE appears to still have hardware and software issues. The technology is driven by a 3-core ARM processor, two of which are reserved for voice recognition. The remaining core is not nearly as powerful enough as would be required by a user experience that would resemble the usage of an iPad. Pressing a button will result in immediate haptic, vibrating feedback, but the screen will not react without a 2- to 3-second delay. In its current version, CUE appears to be hopelessly underpowered by the underlying hardware.
The software foundation is Linux based and while the user interface is pretty, there are some bugs. Twice during our week, a bug caused to automatically increase the audio volume to its maximum level. The only resolution was to stop the car, turn it off and back on for a full restart of CUE. Thankfully, CUE can be flashed via an SD card and Cadillac may want to look into this issue.
IX Design and Distraction
Some time with CUE reveals just how much work must have gone into designing the iOS and Android UIs for the specific purpose of smartphone and tablet usage.
The main screen of CUE consists of only eight items - Audio, Phone, Navigation, Settings, Pandora, Weather, Climate and OnStar. While this seems to be sufficiently simple, moving your audio output, for example, from a USB stick to a satellite radio station requires you to move to the home screen via a touch-sensitive button on the side of the dash, pressing the audio icon, then the satellite radio icon, then the browse icon, and then slide a scroll bar to the station you are looking. Moving from one radio station to another requires the driver passenger to always first move the hand toward the screen so that the proximity sensor can initiate the display of respective icons (which also happens with a delay).
This all happens, of course, most likely when you are driving and with the aforementioned reaction delays of the software. When completed, you will have removed your eyes from the road to the screen five times and you may have spent 20 to 30 seconds. In most other cars you can do the same within 5 seconds.
The distraction gets more complex with more complicated displays, such as a map. Using the pinch to zoom to better highlight a location happens only after a 2-second delay. I have found one interface advantage of the CUE interface: you can enter the entire address in one line in the destination input of the navigation system without hopping through different screens.
CUE would work much better if Cadillac was to bring back some key physical push buttons and knobs for the climate and audio controls. The reaction time of the touch interface is, at this time, unacceptable and is reminiscent of the first generation of $99 Android tablets that were equally underpowered.
A big problem with CUE is its strict focus on copying a tablet experience but not working off a platform such as Android, which may function much faster in this environment. Another issue is the fact that tablet and phone touch interfaces were created for portrait screens, while CUE is shown on a landscape screen and the user has to reach it with an extended arm. By default, CUE cannot be used as conveniently as a tablet.
Occasionally, car manufacturers go through trial-and-error periods when designing radical new technologies. Some readers may remember BMW's iDrive system, which was plain infuriating in its first version and has become usable just in the most recent generation of BMW models. CUE appears to be a textbook example of a first-generation product that is in dire need of revision. Some ideas such as the proximity sensor can enhance the car entertainment experience, but the refinement in the interaction design is lacking. CUE would be criticized in a $20,000 car, but at more than $40,000 and a vehicle that can easily exceed $50,000 it is more toy than a useful and safe interface.