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Time to Take a New Approach to Car Tech

J.D. Powers study reveals drivers are unhappy with technology -- particularly Bluetooth.

By Douglas Newcomb Jun 25, 2012 7:39AM

Bluetooth in Mercedes-Benz.The takeaway from J.D. Power and Associates’ closely watched Initial Quality Study released last week was twofold: Overall, cars are getting much better, and many car buyers are very unhappy with infotainment technology. The study found that automakers posted “the strongest improvement in initial quality since 2009 and are producing higher-quality vehicles than ever before.” In terms of the number of problems per 100 vehicles, the industry overall has improved 5 percent, according to the study.


But the study also noted that “there are year-over-year gains in most areas of initial quality, with one notable exception -- audio, entertainment and navigation problems have increased by 8 percent from 2011.” J.D. Power added, “This continues a recent trend, as problems in this category have increased by 45 percent since 2006 while other categories have improved by 24 percent, on average.”


The study also found that as technology features previously available only on high-end luxury vehicles have trickled down to more mainstream cars, buyer frustration has likewise spread. While the percentage of complaints regarding other vehicle problems over the past six years has been in the low double digits, the study revealed that issues with one tech feature in particular have skyrocketed during just the past four years.


The study showed that the number of owner-reported problems with “factory-installed hands-free communication devices” (i.e., Bluetooth) has increased 137 percent since 2008. “In fact, hands-free devices not recognizing commands has become the most-often-reported problem in the industry,” the study said. The situation has become worse since automakers are adding more smartphone-capable features that rely on Bluetooth connectivity -- and those more advanced features are also available in more cars.


“As manufacturers introduce increasingly sophisticated multimedia systems designed to enhance the ownership experience, owners more frequently cite these systems as a source of quality problems,” the study said. J.D Power also noted that for the first time in the 26-year history of the study, owners reported more problems related to infotainment technology than in any other area, and that in 2012 more than 80 percent of owners indicated that their new vehicle has some form of hands-free technology.


While automakers are certainly having their growing pains with technology, the results of this study clearly indicate that the main culprit is Bluetooth connectivity, with voice-activation as an accomplice. While voice-recognition technology gets better, problems with Bluetooth keep getting worse. Infotainment interfaces notwithstanding, it’s the elephant in the room when automakers start discussing the difficulties they face in tethering smartphones to vehicles -- and, more specifically, in making their systems work with so many different devices. As I've previously pointed out, lately I’ve heard hushed calls among automakers and suppliers to consider replacing the Bluetooth “standard” with a connectivity technology that brings more standardization to the car-device connection.


Another possible -- and related -- solution to easing consumers’ frustrations in this area is for automakers to partner more actively with technology companies and make their infotainment systems more of a pass-through for driver’s smartphones. It’s a natural evolution of what is already happening. Ford took advantage of Microsoft’s software know-how to develop Sync, which is inexpensive and easy to update and which connects to a driver’s phone to deliver many of its features. Other systems, such as Toyota's Entune and BMW's ConnectedDrive, are doing the same with smartphones -- although in most cases it’s the automaker’s interface that’s the Achilles’ heel in terms of usability.


Apple’s recent announcement that it’s getting into the automotive market with a feature called Eyes Free is also promising. Eyes Free uses the company’s Siri voice-recognition technology to access an iPhone and the features on that device that drivers may use anyway -- except without having to handle the phone. But like most Apple applications in the car, Siri will likely work only through a wired USB connection rather than Bluetooth. Many other phones use Bluetooth and are operated by other voice-recognition technology; those would be the type that generated all those complaints in the J.D. Power study.


Doug Newcomb has been covering car technology for more than 20 years for outlets ranging from Rolling Stone to In 2008, he published his first book, "Car Audio for Dummies" (Wiley). He lives and drives in Hood River, Ore., with his wife and two kids, who share his passion for cars and car technology, especially driving and listening to music.

Jun 26, 2012 3:20AM
My issue isn't with Bluetooth, it's with touchscreen systems. I factory ordered my car specifically so I could avoid the touchscreen. That means that I can adjust climate controls etc. without taking my eyes off the road.
I have no problems with the voice-operated uConnect system - in concert with the steering wheel controls, it works flawlessly for radio/iPhone control and the Bluetooth connection with my iPhone works great.

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