Digital Divide

Consumers may prefer to have the latest technology in their new vehicles, but all the added hardware and software can be confusing out on the road.
As technology becomes more advanced, automakers are leaning on high-tech features to bolster their products. Photo Courtesy: Lincoln

When Dr. Arthur Rose of Huntington Woods decided to buy a new car, he found himself drawn to the new Cadillac CT6 sedan. It wasn’t the distinctively edgy art and science design, nor the 404-horsepower, twin-turbo V-6 engine that caught his eye; rather, it was the luxury sedan’s long list of high-tech safety and infotainment features.

There was the Cadillac Cue, with its navigation system and Apple CarPlay, as well as active cruise control and forward collision warning with auto braking. About the only box he didn’t check was the infrared night vision with pedestrian detection.

Six months later, the physician concedes, “I still haven’t figured out how to use it all. There are some things they tell you that you have to set up, but that’s not as easy as they say. It’s just an overwhelming amount of stuff, a lot of which I probably didn’t need.”

And if there’s not enough already, Cadillac will be adding even more high-tech features for the 2018 model year. Later this year, the automaker plans to launch its new super cruise system, a significant step along the path toward autonomous driving.

Rose is by no means alone, both in being drawn to the latest in automotive technology and in being frustrated when it comes time to learn how to operate it all. Automakers like
Cadillac are quick to tell you how customers are demanding the latest digital features, and research shows that millennials are less likely to consider vehicles that don’t offer technologies such as Bluetooth, Apple CarPlay, and Android Auto. The same research also reveals that owners are growing increasingly frustrated once they drive off the showroom lot and try to make all the hardware and software work.

Such a dichotomy is posing a serious challenge for the industry. If nothing else, cars in the coming years are going to get even more complicated — and new research warns that consumers are growing less confident that automotive manufacturers are going to get everything right.

On the whole, the auto industry is “making some of the highest quality products we’ve ever seen,” says Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive quality for J.D. Power and Associates. According to J.D. Power’s most recent Initial Quality Study, or IQS, the improvements are coming at a record pace. But there’s an asterisk after the numbers.

Classic mechanical quality problems, such as balky transmissions, faulty engines, misfitting body panels, and excess wind noise have largely vanished. They’ve been replaced by a new sort of headache, according to Stephens.

Automakers are adding so many new features, she says — such as hands-free phone systems, voice-activated navigation, in-vehicle WiFi, and other high-tech gear — that they’ve introduced a whole new realm of things that can, and far too often do, go wrong. In recent years, what J.D. Power collectively calls audio, communication, entertainment, and navigation, or ACEN, systems have become one of the most frequently cited topics of complaint by new vehicle owners.

In fact, balky navigation technology is now the No. 1 headache reported by owners. It’s become all too common for a motorist to hit the voice control switch on the steering wheel and ask for a destination in Detroit, only to get directions to someplace in Dover, Del. ACEN issues, in general, accounted for a quarter of overall “problems” that J.D. Power calls defects and malfunctions in the latest quality study. That’s echoed by other recent research.

“The increase in technology-related problems has two sources,” Stephens says. “Usability problems that customers reported during their first 90 days of ownership are still bothering them three years later, in ever-higher numbers. At the same time, the penetration of these features has increased year over year.”

Indeed, the trend toward more electronics is likely to continue accelerating, for a variety of reasons — including the race to put the first autonomous vehicles on the road.

Few automakers have more aggressively added new technology and features than Ford Motor Co., which now touts itself as an automotive manufacturer and a mobility services provider. Ford recently announced plans to have its first fully driverless vehicle on the road by 2021. The company has been focused on mobile tech for more than two decades, and introduced the world’s first in-car emergency call system several years before General Motors launched OnStar. Ford’s Sync was one of the first touch-and voice-controlled infotainment systems offered in a mainstream vehicle.

In 2013, the carmaker bought Ferndale-based tech firm Livio to help it come up with ways to integrate smartphone apps directly into Sync. More recently, Ford has begun integrating both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto into its vehicles, and has designed an in-vehicle screen to look like a smartphone screen.

Taking things a step further, the latest update of the Ford infotainment system, dubbed Sync3, allows a driver to talk to “Alexa,” the “voice assistant” introduced on the Amazon Echo home automation device. Still a work in progress, you can use it to order your favorite cup of java at a nearby Starbucks, or turn the lights on in your home as you begin your end-of-the-day commute.

At least, that’s how it’s supposed to work. But so many vehicle owners don’t use all the technology in their vehicles because, as many surveys have revealed, it’s too intimidating.

As a result, Ford’s experience with in-car technology has been decidedly mixed. Research data indicates the Dearborn automaker has a strong following among technophiles, especially millennials, who are more interested in megabytes and megaflops (a measurement of computer processing speed) than horsepower and torque.

The automaker insists a significant number of buyers have come to the company because of Sync. But for some owners, especially those using early versions of the software, the technology has proved to be a digital nightmare. Once among the most highly rated of the mainstream automakers in J.D. Power’s IQS, Ford’s quality score began to plunge after Sync was introduced.

The situation was serious enough that Ford pulled the plug on its relationship with Microsoft, which had developed the underlying Sync platform several years ago. For Sync3, it switched to the QNX software developed by BlackBerry. “The future of the automobile is all about embedded intelligence. I believe our expertise in secure embedded software makes us the preferred technology provider to put the smart in the car,” says John Chen, CEO of BlackBerry.

Ford is by no means the only automaker to be alternately praised and pummeled for introducing breakthrough digital technology. Perhaps no carmaker took as many brickbats as BMW when it launched the iDrive system on its flagship 7-Series sedan in 2001. The basic concept was revolutionary, integrating an array of different features in a single rotary controller designed to operate everything from the sedan’s navigation to its audio systems, as well as a variety of vehicle functions. The trouble was, even the most tech-savvy users found it about as easy to master as particle physics. “The (original) iDrive was so complicated,” says George Peterson, president of AutoPacific Inc., an automotive marketing research and product-consulting firm in Los Angeles, “that people just wanted to shut it off.”

Like Ford’s Sync, BMW’s iDrive has undergone a series of upgrades and updates since its introduction. The automaker added not only a “Back” button, but separate buttons that let a user skip from one function directly to another — from navigation to audio to vehicle settings. Of course, it has added a range of new features, as well. The latest iDrive now controls such things as heated and cooled massaging seats, an active suspension system, and a raft of semiautonomous safety systems that can help a driver stay in their lane and bring the vehicle to a stop automatically to avoid a crash.

“The challenge for manufacturers,” Peterson says, is the same that tech companies have had to deal with: how to meet the demand for ever more technology “while making these systems more intuitive to use.”

To improve the user experience, Cadillac, Honda, and Ford have placed their bets on touch-based systems. Considering the ubiquity of today’s smartphones, that’s not a bad choice. But the screen mounted atop a center console doesn’t necessarily operate the same way an iPhone does, especially when the vehicle is bouncing over bumps and the user presses the wrong virtual button. A number of systems, such as the Cadillac Cue, also have been faulted for operating too slowly — an issue that can compound driver distraction.

Meanwhile, Toyota and its Lexus brand have turned to a controller that works almost like a computer mouse. Scroll across the screen and tap a button to zoom in on the navigation screen or change the radio station. German automakers such as Volkswagen, Audi, and Mercedes-Benz have generally favored iDrive-like rotary controllers, although they’ve expanded the number of options by giving motorists alternative ways to operate vehicle functions.

Along with its rotary knob, the updated Mercedes S-Class coming later this year will feature a laptop computer-like touchpad on which a driver can “draw” letters and numbers into the navigation system, as well as a touchscreen. BMW introduced the world’s first gesture control system when it redesigned the 7-Series two years ago, but someone with a tendency to use their hands when they talk may occasionally find the channel unexpectedly changing or the volume suddenly rising.

With rare exception, most manufacturers have now adopted voice control, but the quality and usefulness of these systems can vary widely. With some, entering a simple destination is a laborious, multistep process, while with others, it’s now possible to enter even a complex request in someone’s natural language.

Things could get even easier, as a growing number of carmakers are pairing up with tech firms like Apple, Amazon, Google, and Microsoft: Tap a button on your steering wheel to instantly call up Siri or Alexa. The added advantage is being able to access the many apps and “skills” these services have developed on their own, such as the ability to pre-order that cup of java from Starbucks from your Sync3-equipped Ford.

Apple and Google have also weighed in with their new CarPlay and Android Auto systems, which attempt to mirror, on a vehicle’s touchscreen, what smartphone users are already familiar with. With virtually all 2017 Chevrolet products, for example, users simply connect their phone, and the touchscreen can remotely operate a wide range of iPhone and Android apps. “Android Auto and CarPlay should solve a lot of these problems,” Peterson says, “because those interfaces are familiar to people.”

Despite all the solutions, none has completely resolved the high-tech dilemma — so a growing number of manufacturers are going retro, at least to a small degree. With the launch of the new 2018 Pilot and Odyssey models, Honda brought back its long-lamented volume knob. Other automakers are adding manual tuning and knobs, as well as buttons and switches, to operate other “mission critical” functions such as a vehicle’s climate control.

Consider that Toyota has been working with West Coast startup Kymeta to find ways to drive not kilobytes and megabytes worth of data into and out of the vehicle, but gigabytes and even terabytes. That level of sophistication will be critical in a world where cars communicate with one another — and a roadside infrastructure — when they can drive autonomously.

Considering all the hassles motorists face with today’s high-tech vehicles, is it any surprise the public is wary about what’s to come? “In most cases, as technology concepts get closer to becoming reality, consumer curiosity and acceptance increase,” says Kristin Kolodge, executive director of driver interaction and HMI (Human-Machine Interface) research at J.D. Power and Associates. “With autonomous vehicles, we see a pattern where trust … in the technology … is declining.” According to the recently released U.S. Tech Choice Study, a solid majority of Americans say they don’t trust self-driving vehicles and wouldn’t want to ride in one. The exception? Millennials — although even those in the tech-infused Generation Z remain wary.

Should that be a surprise? If you’ve struggled to do something as simple as change a radio station, adjust the volume, or enter a destination into a vehicle’s navigation system, only to fail, why would you trust a self-driving car, Kolodge and other experts ask? It doesn’t help when the headlines of recent months have been filled with reports of crashes involving autonomous prototypes — including two in March, on the same weekend, near Phoenix.

Consider the latest installment in the wildly popular “Fast and Furious” film series. The climax of the most recent film, called “Fate of the Furious,” involves one of the hoariest crash scenes ever filmed, ostensibly the result of hackers taking control of a fleet of self-driving vehicles. And, yes, Mark Rosekind, the recently retired head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, adds the risk of hackers to the list of things that can go wrong with our high-tech vehicles.

Perhaps what’s most surprising about J.D. Power’s recent Tech Choice Study, however, wasn’t the level of angst about autonomous vehicles. It was the high degree of demand for other high-tech safety technology, such as blind spot detection and autonomous emergency braking, among several digital features expected to become ubiquitous by 2020.

As with every other aspect of our lives, we’ve come to expect technology to work to our betterment. We’ve also accepted that high-tech devices tend to go wrong. That may be an equation we’ve grown willing to live with in most situations, but not in a car racing along at 70 miles an hour.

As it stands, the auto industry’s winners are going to need to find ways to make tomorrow’s smart cars not just more reliable, but more transparent and intuitive, as well.