The state of the auto industry is one of opposites. There are sport utility vehicles with more horsepower than sports cars, and pickup trucks equipped like luxury flagships. Americans hold on to their cars for over 11 years, yet new-car sales broke records in 2015 and again in 2016. Yet we’re also paying record high prices of more than $34,000 to load up our vehicles with stuff that aggravates us.
So much stuff. Even though there are few new car duds, consumer complaints are on the rise because of technology ranging from balky voice commands to glitchy touchscreens and enough dings, blings and dongs to make you dizzy.
In this cutthroat competitive market, where horsepower and mpg are incrementally maxed out, the next place an automaker can stand out is with in-car technology. At best, it makes us safer and provides convenience. At worst, and too often, it makes us confused.
Complaints on the suite of systems generally known as infotainment accounts for 22 percent — the largest category — of consumer complaints in the first three years of ownership, according to the 2017 J.D. Power vehicle dependability study.
From voice recognition fails to Bluetooth drops, either owners are expecting in-car technology to be as intuitive as smartphones or carmakers are hamstrung about how to safely offer such levels of connectivity.
“Increased complexity equals increased problems,” Consumer Reports warned consumers (and automakers) in its 2016 car reliability survey.
Here are the biggest sources of new car frustration.
Looking at it from an evolutionary view, touchscreens had to happen to get to the next thing. With the backup camera mandated in all 2018 model year vehicles, it made sense to combine audio, climate, navigation, phone and vehicle info functions into the screen. But too often, especially in Asian makes, the buttons are too small, the interface too layered to safely execute a simple command. It becomes something many drivers would rather not use.
On the other hand, Tesla’s massive 17-inch touchscreen is intuitive and excellent. Most automakers are dialing down touchscreens with the return of climate and audio buttons in sleek, Spartan designs that complement the display screen. While we prefer the Germans’ and Mazda’s use of a control dial to access all that valuable information and all those pricey functions, some makes such as Chevrolet have done well using redundant steering controls to access the info in a condensed screen in the instrument cluster. It’s as easy to use as setting the cruise. The roads would be safer, and drivers less frustrated, with the elimination of the touchscreen.
Give Cadillac credit for trying something new when it debuted the CUE system in 2011 for model year 2013. Cadillac User Experience used capacitive, or touch sensitive, technology such as on a tablet to change the temperature or radio volume. The design was sharp, and the hidden storage unit behind the panel was clever, but functionally it took several attempts to nail the right temp or volume. It was worse than a button. There’s no sense in reinventing something to make it worse.
Add to this category BMW’s gesture control technology, which uses an overhead sensor to detect hand gestures so you don’t need to touch anything at all, you just have to learn BMW hand gesture language. It’s silly more than frustrating. Don’t crow, Lexus, your infotainment system and ridiculous belt buckle control hardware is the worst luxury system on the market.
PARKLESS OR ELECTRIC GEAR SHIFTERS
Like buttons, gear shifters didn’t cause many problems a decade ago, yet engineers and designers were intent on reinventing PRNDL. Spawned by BMW and mixed up by Fiat Chrysler Automobiles, some gear knobs default to a middle setting, so it’s unclear if it is in park, reverse, or neutral. So a driver can shut off the engine and step out of the car while it is in neutral. FCA had to recall 1.1 million vehicles due to vehicles rolling away and injuring owners, and in one high-profile case, actor Anton Yelchin was killed when his Jeep Grand Cherokee rolled away and pinned him against a brick pillar.
Better systems are designed to default to park when the engine is shut off or when the driver’s side door is opened, according to Consumer Reports. That makes sense.
It’d be great to see automatic shut-off of engines idling for extended periods of time without a driver present, to limit the risk of carbon dioxide poisoning of drivers who forget to push the off button when parking in the garage.
Some makes assume there are no such thing as passengers by locking out phone pairing or navigation settings while the car is in motion. We get it, we shouldn’t be pairing phones while driving, but an easy override to allow a passenger to do it could be to detect if the passenger seat belt is engaged.
Automatic start-stop shuts off the engine at stop lights or other sustained stops to save fuel and reduce emissions. Let off the brake or put it in gear and the engine starts up again. Most luxury makes have it and many mainstream models are getting it. The issue is not the technology itself, but the inability in some cars to disable it with a button, say, for more spirited driving off the line, or if you’re in the stop-and-go crawl commute, or most problematically, if you’re turning left at a light and need to gun it. It could mess up a driver’s timing. When equipped with a shut-off button, it defaults to on because that reflects EPA test-cycle estimates.