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In-Car Technology Often Presents Steep Learning Curve for Drivers

The whole point of technology is to make life a little easier and a little more enjoyable, but many are finding that isn't always the case when it comes to cramming more high-tech content in cars.

Powerful in-dash infotainment systems have become a big selling point in new cars, but they’re also one of the features most likely to give drivers fits.

Increasingly complex, the computerized systems do everything from climate control, to turn-by-turn navigation, to beaming in real-time traffic data. Some carmakers even offer HDMI cable ports so you can watch high-definition movies from the front seat, if that sort of thing appeals to you.

“You’re bringing so much more technology into the vehicle. It’s great. Customers really want it. They’re excited about it. But it has to work, it has to be intuitive and not distracting. That’s the challenge companies are facing right now,” said Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive quality J.D. Power.

The whole point of technology is to make life a little easier and a little more enjoyable. And when it works, customers love it.

But many are finding that isn’t always the case when it comes to cramming more high-tech content in cars. Sometimes phones won’t connect. Notifications may not make sense. Screens go blank or stop responding. Voice commands aren’t understood. Users feel trapped in an endless loop of menu options.

That’s not to say that today’s cars are junk or that we’d be better off as Luddites. Far from it. New cars and trucks are widely recognized as being safer, better built, and more efficient than ever. A lot of that has to do with new technology. Things like adaptive cruise control and lane-departure warnings can help motorists avoid accidents and keep missteps from becoming crashes.

However, experts do say there’s a learning curve associated with all this interactive technology — for users and developers.

Think about getting a new smart phone or tablet. Most people are eager to sit down and dedicate some real time to learn their way around the device.

Not so much with autos, said Egil Juliussen, an analyst and researcher with IHS Automotive.

“Probably most spend five minutes,” he said. “That’s just not enough. I think there is a learning period here that nobody is doing.”

It doesn’t help that no two automakers use the exact same system. That means menus, capabilities, and even buttons are likely to be different from brand to brand.

Mr. Juliussen, who has more than 30 years’ experience in the computer industry, said some systems are better than others from a usability standpoint. But even well-designed infotainment systems can be bewildering to someone who doesn’t have a smart phone or computer.

And yes, those people do still exist. The U.S. Census Bureau said 21 percent of U.S. households didn’t own a personal computer as of 2012.

Luxury brands are particularly susceptible to that phenomenon. Higher-priced cars are typically where automakers introduce the newest features. But buyers of those cars tend to be older and frequently are less tech savvy.

“There aren’t too many 20-somethings that can afford a luxury car,” Mr. Juliussen said. “There’s a mismatch between the people using smart-phone apps to their fullest and the cars they can afford.”

While that may be true in general, David Taylor of Taylor Cadillac in Sylvania Township, said a number of older buyers have picked it up right away, and most view the system favorably, especially once they’ve received some instruction.

“I think it’s something that sells more cars than it keeps from being sold,” Mr. Taylor said.

Dealers say education is key, whether you’re selling $70,000 Cadillacs or $20,000 Chevrolets.

Michael Hitch, a salesman at Dunn Chevrolet in Oregon, said he’s happy to go as deep as the buyer wants.

“We spend as much time on a delivery as the buyer has questions for and we stop just short of overwhelming people,” he said.

Mr. Hitch often tells customers to think about the different menus like a flow chart. Some deliveries will last as long as three hours, with dealership employees thoroughly going over how to work Chevrolet’s MyLink system. He also suggests people read the owners manual, or at least the short, illustrated “getting to know you” section of it. He also welcomes them to come back if questions arise. Generally, that’s enough to make people comfortable with the system.

“Once you get a customer past the fear of making a mistake, knowing you can just back up one screen, and how to restart everything if you get confused, it’s pretty easy,” he said.

Mr. Taylor also said once someone has had a chance to get a feel for Cadillac’s Cue infotainment system, it’s easy to use. That’s not to say a lengthy lesson isn’t helpful, though.

“We spend more time because there’s so much more content that somebody’s getting,” he said. “If you slow down on these things, and you show somebody what they’re really getting, they’re just thrilled. They’re getting more out of the car than they ever did before, and I think that excites people.”

Still, problems with some infotainment systems continue to drag on automakers’ reliability and initial quality scores.

When J.D. Power released its 2014 initial quality report in June, David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power, said automakers are trying to roll out new features without introducing new problems.

“However, almost all automakers are struggling to do this flawlessly, with some consumers indicating that the technology is hard to understand, difficult to use, or simply does not always work as designed,” he said.

J.D. Power found the frequency of problems in new vehicles rose from the previous year. The chief offenders: problems with voice recognition, Bluetooth pairing, and audio systems.

Some of those same issues cropped up in the most recent reliability survey from Consumer Reports. The organization said last week that bugs and glitches with electronics were the most frequent complaints, dragging down ratings for a number of domestic and foreign cars.

Jeff Kagan, an independent technology analyst, said it comes down to consumers demanding something that automakers are struggling to provide.

“The carmakers have this desire to offer something to the customers to make them very competitive and very attractive in the marketplace,” he said. “The problem is they have no experience in these areas.”

Automakers would argue that point to a degree. Car companies have been hiring tech-savvy engineers in big numbers of late, and industry analysts say they’re increasingly looking to partner with established tech companies for new products.


But in spite of that, there seem to be a number of real issues when it comes to infotainment systems, particularly those that are brand new.

Consumer Reports said more than 20 percent of people who own the new Infinity Q50 sedan reported problems with its new Intouch system.

That’s an extreme case, but it illustrates how much can go wrong with new products.

“There’s really this very steep learning curve in terms of reliability in these systems,” said Jake Fisher, Consumer Reports’ director of automotive testing. “The ones that have been around longer tend to be more reliable. The new ones tend to be funky.”

Ford Motor Co.’s MyTouch, for example, was long panned by Consumer Reports as one of the worst systems out there. Though the magazine still isn't high on MyTouch, it acknowledges updates and time have made the system better. That showed up in the reliability ratings. The Lincoln brand moved up 12 spots, while Ford inched up three.

Consumer Reports does attempt to ensure that the complaints it reports are problems, not just people misunderstanding or misusing a complicated system.

In fact, some of the most complex and difficult-to-learn systems are the most reliable. Mr. Fisher said Cadillac’s Cue system is the “most complicated” out there but generally is very reliable.

“There’s a lot of flash and dazzle in the system,” Mr. Fisher said. Still, Cadillac rose seven slots in CR’s 2014 reliability rankings.

The good news is that most experts say automakers are making strides to make systems better. But they also say cars are only going to get more high-tech and interactive in the future.

Mr. Kagan expects a lot more features will be coming over the next few years, chief among them wireless Internet.

General Motors Co. is already on the way to making 4G wireless Internet available in most of its lineup by the end of the year, something that should greatly enhance the possibilities for integrating technology into the road trip.

“We’re still just in the very early chapters,” Mr. Kagan said. “We’re really just starting to see some ideas and innovation and creativity. If we move out five years, we’re going to have Wi-Fi connectivity in most cars.”

©2014 The Blade (Toledo, Ohio)