On February 24, 2016, JD Power released their Vehicle Dependability Study for 2016.
In the pages of this report, there is the usual news and the real news.
In the "usual" news, JD Power, a consumer ratings agency cites Lexus, Porsche and Buick as the 3 marques with the lowest number of problems per 100 vehicles. The report identifies the 3 most reliable cars by vehicle segment, and you'd be surprised to see the mix of domestic and foreign names.
Now for the real news.
Technology usability and reliability issues represent 20% of all customer reported problems.
The report accurately describes a daisy chain of misery for a car owner. They buy a new vehicle full of audio, communication, entertainment and navigation tech (known to the industry as ACEN). Soon, elements of the ACEN do not work properly. The owner rarely takes the time to get issues resolved at the dealer, or figure it out on their own. At the end of the term, the owner buys another vehicle full of tech, and the cycle repeats.
"The increase in technology-related problems has two sources," Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive at J.D. Power, noted. "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."
Think about that quote. Owners report that ACEN doesn't work, or they can't understand how to make it work within the first 90 days of ownership. THREE years later the same problems are still unresolved. What makes it worse, additional problems--real, imagined, user error or not--lower the chances for repeat business even more.
...The problems most often reported by owners are Bluetooth pairing/connectivity and built-in voice recognition systems misinterpreting commands. Navigation system difficult to use and navigation system inaccurate are also among the 10 most frequently reported problems...Among owners who experienced no problems with their vehicle, 55% purchased the same brand again. In contrast, only 41% of owners who experienced three or more problems with their vehicle stayed with the same brand for their next purchase. Additionally, only a third of owners who had to replace a component outside of normal wear items said they would definitely repurchase or lease the same brand again....
I have seen this firsthand. My wife leased a 2015 Mazda CX-5, complete with Technology Package. First, the bluetooth is slow to load. What do I mean by that? It is slow.....to.....load.
Next, the voice recognition is horrible. Had I said the previous sentence to the car's unit, it might interpret that as "The velvet pizza is commendable".
Third is the navigation system. It's brilliant--as long as you're not moving. Programming a route is like going back to the early days of GPS devices. You need a Zip Code to start the programming process, which most people don't readily have. It would be nice if we could use the voice recognition to program the navigation. But...see the paragraph above.
And the technology experience lazily augurs into the ground from there.
Otherwise the CX-5 is great. It is a peppy and fun drive. We have found the car to be pretty reliable. Save for the technology.
Yes, the two of us need to get some wine, the manual, some Mazda YouTube videos and figure out once and for all how to use the car. But if I'm getting a glass of wine, heading to the garage is not the next thing I want to do.
So what can be done to bridge this usability gap? I've made some suggestions before at the Hybrid and Electric Car News.
Those are a few solutions, what are others? One is pretty simple. On the test drive, buyers need to use the technology. Program the navigation, talk to the voice recognition, connect your phone via bluetooth, stream music and everything else you think you will do with the new car. Leave no button un-pushed, no screen un-tapped.
This will drive the salesperson insane. To which I say "so what".
Another obvious solution is for automakers to think even more about usability. Just as icons and functions are generally the same between Apple and Android, perhaps carmakers should coalesce around a similar presentation of icons and functions.
If you have a problem with something in your vehicle, you should be able to use your phone or an on-board device to access diagnostic video. You should be also able to use the electronics of your vehicle to chat with a service representative. Think of it like OnStar, but for figuring out how to use the voice recognition.
I don't know how often automakers push software updates, but the pace needs to increase. Or start.
The evolution of automotive tech--ACEN and more--is driven by the pace of change we see in consumer electronics. But, unlike a lot of consumer items, car tech it is not that easy to use, and doesn't work reliably.
The impact of usability, reliability and customer acceptance is even more important these days given the massive changes in driving and mobility. How can we trust a self-driving car with our families if vehicles don't recognize what we are saying? How can we trust autonomous driving if we don't trust the nav to take us to the destination via our favorite route?
What are your tales of ACEN woe? The button that no longer does anything? The feature you most wanted that doesn't function right? Has it affected your opinion of the automaker? How do you plan to address it in your next vehicle purchase?