Photo: General Motors
As automakers continue to load vehicles with the features and functionality people expect from their portable devices, the in-dash user interface has become a branding battleground – and the Achilles’ heel of the increasingly connected car. While giving a smartphone or tablet undivided attention is common – if not considered rude, depending on your circle of friends – calling up a Pandora station on your iPhone while driving has the potential to put your life, and others on the road, at risk.
Automakers have to strike a balance between providing drivers the smartphone-enabled applications they desire, while making them safe to access on the fly. But that poses its own issues, including liability concerns and a fear that the feds – fired up about distracted driving – could mandate or outright ban these newest technologies in the car. U.S. Secretary of Transportation Ray LaHood has personally called out automakers for putting tech prowess and profit before public safety, and has singled out Ford’s Sync system in particular.
But as automakers have pushed smartphone integration as a way to bring connectivity to the car – and attempted to emulate the slick touch screens of the devices – the most cutting-edge automotive UIs have largely been a series of failures. After soaring from the success of Sync, for example, the follow-up MyFord Touch system brought the Dearborn-based automaker down a few pegs. In a test of the Ford Edge last year, Consumer Reports called MyFord Touch “frustrating” and “a complicated distraction when driving.” A few months later, Ford dropped to 23rd from fifth place the previous year in J.D. Power & Associates’ 2011 Initial Quality Study, largely based on customer’s complaints with the largely capacitive touch-based system.
Ford declined to comment for this story, but claims an 80 percent “take rate” on MyFord Touch in the Edge and Explorer. The automaker also took the unprecedented step earlier this year of sending software upgrades to all owners of vehicles with the system. But one owner we spoke with doesn’t feel it saves the system.
Greg Gill of San Juan Capistrano, California, is a self-described “diehard Ford owner” who purchased his 2011 Edge about a year ago. “Before that, I owned two Expeditions and an Explorer,” said the VP of marketing for the National Auto Sport Association. Gill considers himself tech savvy and knew about the issues with MyFord Touch. “But I still bought it,” he said. “I thought, ‘That’s everybody else. I’m not going to have any problem with it.’ And what a nightmare it’s been.”
“The touchscreen is very clunky,” he told Wired. “I’m constantly tapping it multiple times and looking at it. There are so many things that have not been done well – even after the upgrade. And when I took it in for service, the dealer said, ‘Everybody’s coming in with these issues. Nobody’s happy with their MyFord Touch.’” Gill contends that he’s “still a satisfied Edge owner, but I could not recommend the vehicle overall because of MyFord Touch.”
Automakers are learning from the Blue Oval’s stumble
While Ford had a huge head start with the initial Sync system, other automakers are learning from the Blue Oval’s stumble with its latest high-tech release – and if not designing radically different systems, then at least pouring resources into consumer education. For the launch of Cadillac’s CUE system – which, from our early experiences with it, looks and functions similar to MyFord Touch – that will debut on the new XTS sedan, the GM luxury brand is taking a blitzkrieg approach to tech support, including giving everyone who purchases the XTS in its first year an iPad preloaded with an app that simulates the CUE user interface.
Cadillac is also dispatching 25 “connected consumer specialists” to dealerships to ensure that salespeople become familiar with CUE, and dealers are required to staff stores with two “certified technology experts” trained by the CUE specialists. Additionally, Cadillac is setting up a dedicated call center to handle questions on CUE, will have representatives scouring Internet forums and social media sites to spot concerns and is even prepared to send specialists to XTS owners’ homes who have still unresolved issues with the system.
“We’re trying to think of every way that a customer might ask for help,” said Scott Fosgard, a General Motors spokesperson. “If you’re a CUE owner and having problems, we’ll meet you at your place of work or home, whatever’s convenient.”
To coincide with the launch of the new 2013 GS, Lexus is creating two new tech positions at each of its dealerships: a vehicle delivery specialist to go over the features of a vehicle with new owners, and a vehicle technology specialist to serve as a contact for customers who have questions on how to use their vehicle’s electronics. “We need to provide a standardized method to get information to a wide variety of audiences, and owners’ manuals allow us to achieve that,” said Kevin Pratt, product education manager for Lexus. “However, we recognize that the best way for people to understand and get the full benefit of the features in their car is to be shown how to use them.”
Lexus is also employing an iPad app designed specifically for the GS to educate customers on the car’s features. Owners can even use the Facetime to contact a dealer and get remote personal tutorials on the tech in their vehicles.
But if the UI is properly designed in the first place, it should be intuitive enough that you don’t need a tech expert to make house calls or even an owner’s manual (see: Apple). “I think a lot of people have gotten used to Apple devices,” said Mark C. Boyadjis, an analyst who covers automotive electronics at IHS Global. “And when Apple owners have a question, there’s the Genius Bar.”
But Boyadjis points out that, unlike a smartphone, people typically own a car for years. And he notes that the recent rate of change in automotive infotainment may leave many new car buyers lagging in terms of tech. “I think people still to this day are familiar with the two-knob car radio,” he said. “That was the user interface for last 40 or 50 years. People who bought their last car in 2005 and upgrade to a 2012 model are going to see a completely different Human Machine Interface,” Boyadjis added. “They’re going to be introduced to touch screens. Many of them are going to be introduced to voice recognition for the first time. It’s not always something you can read in your user manual; you need to sit down and use it.”
As with any technology, pioneers are often punished for being first out the gate.
And while it’s economically feasible for a luxury brand to sink significant resources into owner education, consumers of lesser means could be left in the lurch as tech trickles down to more mass-market vehicles. “For the smaller automakers, there could be some issues,” Boyadjis tells Wired. “The GMs, Fords and Toyotas of the world have developed this because they’re the bigger players. But when it comes to Mazda or Mitsubishi or Subaru, they’re pushing to put some of this stuff in their cars. But even their newer systems are not super HMI focused, and they don’t have the R&D budget to spend.”
According to Cadillac CUE program manager Jeff Massimilla, while UI issues were addressed in the design phase, the lead up to the launch of the XTS is the first time GM has developed such as extensive tech support program. “The goal was to design a system that’s easy to use and that’s similar to Apple devices, Android devices or other device on the market that are intuitive.”
And then prepare for any potential tech-fail fallout by pumping money into training and support.
As with any technology, pioneers are often punished for being first out the gate. (We’re looking at you, Apple Newton.) Consider the clunky, pre-smartphone, first-generation BMW iDrive, which was pilloried by the automotive press when it debuted in 2001. Since its introduction, iDrive has become one of the more intuitive systems available as BMW refined and iterated on the original concept of a single knob and a handful of buttons to control a multitude of complex functions. Many luxury automakers later copied the concept, and it’s easy to envision similar evolutions with touch screens, capacitive buttons and haptic feedback. But the growing pains of new technology and unrefined UI paradigms are a tough sell for consumers holding onto vehicles for years or even decades, particularly when compared to the monthly and yearly upgrades of smartphones and tablets. It’s a brave new world for automakers, and it’s one that needs constant attention and an unwavering pursuit of usability before an iPhone-like revolution takes place inside the car.