Demand for High-Tech Puts Automakers on Horns of Dilemma

/ Source: The Detroit Bureau

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When the new Lincoln MKX sport-utility vehicle reaches showrooms later this year, the vehicle will feature a new infotainment system dubbed Sync 3. It will be a complete remake of the touch and voice-controlled technology the luxury maker and parent Ford Motor Co. have integrated into millions of cars in recent years.

Ford hopes it will finally solve problems users have long complained about that make even simple tasks, such as pairing a phone or plugging a destination into the navigation system, a frustrating chore.

And Ford isn’t alone. While a variety of studies have shown that motorists are demanding the latest technology in new vehicles, other studies say these digital systems have become a frequent source of trouble.

“Owners view in-vehicle technology issues as significant problems, and they typically don’t go away after the ownership honeymoon period is over,” said Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive research for the consulting firm J.D. Power and Associates.

While Power’s latest Vehicle Dependability Study found that traditional, mechanical issues still give owners headaches, the new report shows that infotainment-related problems are becoming ever more troublesome. In particular, motorists complained about using balky Bluetooth technology to pair their cellphones, as well as dysfunctional voice recognition systems.

“Owners view in-vehicle technology issues as significant problems, and they typically don’t go away after the ownership honeymoon period is over."

While a faulty transmission usually can be repaired, said Stephens, there’s usually no way to go back and fix a poorly designed infotainment system. Motorists typically have to live with them until it’s time to trade in.

“Through the course of their life cycles, cars become obsolete quickly as newer models appear with updated gizmos,” said Consumer Reports. The non-profit publication also pointed to high-tech headaches in its annual review of U.S. new cars, trucks and crossovers.

These days, it’s hard to find a new vehicle that doesn’t offer at least a basic infotainment system. The push to reduce driver distraction has led manufacturers to equip even the most basic entry-level models, such as the Chevrolet Spark city car, with hands-free Bluetooth systems. High-end vehicles, such as the Mercedes-Benz S-Class or a BMW 7-Series, are loaded with more high-tech features than you’d likely find in a home or office.

And there’s intense competition to add the latest features. With the debut of Sync 3, which will soon be offered across the Ford corporate line-up, “We tried to make it look and act more like a smartphone,” explained Ford’s Global Product Development Director Raj Nair.

Selling point

Earlier versions of Sync have been a big selling point for Ford. According to Nair, 43 percent of its buyers have pointed to the infotainment system as a key purchase factor. But the flip side is that persistent problems with Sync have also hammered Ford’s once-sterling reputation for quality. Though the maker had other issues, problems with Sync helped Ford land only 26th among the 32 manufacturers covered by the latest Power dependability study.

Those problems were severe enough that Ford abandoned its ties to Microsoft which developed the original infotainment system. With Sync 3, the Detroit maker partnered with Panasonic and QNX, the struggling Canadian firm best known for its Blackberry phones.

Ford claims the new system is quicker, more intuitive and less prone to sudden crashes. It also helps that it now has more buttons such as tuning and volume control, rather than forcing motorists to dig through several layers of menus to operate basic vehicle functions. Automakers have been struggling to come up with the right balance.

“Our goal is to keep the interior uncluttered,” said Frank Bocca, product manager for the new Volvo XC90, which features a tablet-sized touchscreen and virtually no traditional knobs and buttons. But the larger screen allows more functions to be immediately accessed without scrolling through menus.

Going forward, several automakers hope to address infotainment systems by making them as updateable as smartphone apps. By building 4G LTE telecomm systems into their vehicles a manufacturer can send wirelessly "push" out software improvements and new functions.

“With Tesla’s over-the-air software updates, a Model S that came off the line in 2013 has many of the same new features as one built today,” Consumer Reports noted in its annual vehicle study.

With tomorrow’s cars expected to become even more digitally complex, manufacturers know they have to address these problems or risk losing customers to their competition. But they also know that if they don’t keep loading ever more technology into their vehicles they’re equally at risk.

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