It used to be you got into your car and controlled the "infotainment" with the on/off/volume knob of the AM radio. I don’t remember people longing for more back then, though the addition of FM in the mid-'60s was a big boon for sound quality.
Now people have tons of tech in their cars, and automakers (seeing this as a huge selling point for young drivers who don’t actually like driving) are loading down even entry-level models with the latest in connected entertainment.
The interface on the new Jaguar F-Type. Cars need more features that say things like "Take Me Home." (Photo: Jim Motavalli)
Now auto consultants SBD and polling specialists Nielsen have done a study that concludes a lot of us don’t understand the complicated systems in new cars. As a car tester, I’ve definitely noticed this problem — I’d need to spend the whole week of my test period with the owner’s manual before I really knew how everything worked. And I’ve had the worst possible experience with voice commands, even though they work just fine on my iPhone.
According to the poll of 14,000 car owners, conducted in April and May, 43 percent said automakers are putting too much infotainment tech on new cars. The 10 new car features that scored lowest were all infotainment related, including the aforementioned voice recognition, plus smartphone integration, the use of apps like Pandora, and instrument panels that can be customized by the user.
I’m actually a radio announcer, with clear enunciation, and voice programs can’t understand me at all. According to Automotive News, “Most consumers who’ve had experience with in-car voice recognition have thrown up their hands and stick with punching buttons.”
There are some features owners don’t even know they have, including hard drives that store music. That’s a completely outdated feature when most people are listening to music from streaming services or their phone libraries, but it’s cheap so automakers often slip it in. Also outmoded, apparently, is the CD player, since young buyers gave up on them years ago. CDs are already on the way out on my test cars.
Smartphone interfaces via Bluetooth (like this GM IntelliLink System) are sometimes daunting to consumers. (Photo: Opel ADAM/flickr)
Another thing people don’t much like are subscription-based services, including BMW Assist and Hyundai BlueLink. It’s another bill you have to pay every month. GM maintains a following with OnStar, which the company has been enhancing with driving tips and insurance discounts.
Of course, a lot of driver dissatisfaction with things that aren’t on the car, including those fondly remembered volume controls. Consumers have squawked long and loud about systems (particularly on European cars) that require going through five screens just to change the radio station.
Consumer Reports opines, “We’ve found Cadillac’s CUE and the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch systems to be particularly frustrating. Common gripes are complicated menus, touch screens that are slow to respond, touch-sensitive buttons that are fussy and imprecise, and small display fonts and buttons that are hard to quickly read and access.
But don’t worry too much, because help is (we hope) on the way. An all-new Ford SYNC3 is coming out, and many, if not all, 2016 cars will offer support for both Apple’s CarPlay and Android Auto.
Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Navigant Research, agrees that consumers find today’s systems too complex and non-intuitive “particularly because they’re so accustomed to navigating with their smartphones and tablets.”
Abuelsamid has been testing out a Android/Apple compatible head unit from Pioneer, and he thinks consumer satisfaction will tick upwards when consumers finally get their hands on those systems. “They’re essentially simplified versions of the phone interface,” he said. “The screens will be very familiar to people, and no matter what app you run it stays in the same environment with a consistent look and feel. You won’t be looking around for the controls.”
This is good news for frustrated auto owners. We expect our cars to work at least as well as our smartphones. After all, they cost a whole lot more money.
Here's ABC's Consumer Watch on the subject of car complication. It's not just the infotainment systems, the investigators found:
The frustration is all very interesting when you realize that, as Nielsen points out, the pursuit of a "connected car" is actually driving buyers into the showrooms. They want cool features, they just expect them to work intuitively. Here's some polling data on that:
Related on MNN:
Why your car can't read your CDs (if you even have a CD player!)