As Car Makers Add More Technology to Their Vehicles, New Problems Appear

Our cars are quickly becoming sophisticated computers on wheels and new cars often feature technologies like speech recognition, lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and blind-zone alerts that would have looked like science fiction not too long ago. Now, however, the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study shows that quite a few of these new technologies end up confusing users and have lead to a massive drop in the quality ratings for some manufactures. The clearest example for this is Ford, which has been instrumental in bringing many of these technologies to the mass market. In the J.D. Power ranking, the company dropped from fifth place in 2010 to 23rd this year, showing that this new technology clearly leaves some buyers unsatisfied.

On the invitation of Ford (see disclaimer below), I just spent three days at the “Forward with Ford” conference in Detroit, drove a few of the company’s cars with these systems and talked to some of the engineers behind MyFord Touch and the Nuance voice recognition system that powers many of these features.

touch_logoFor Ford, this ranking must be especially aggravating, given that the company has not just focused greatly on making these technologies affordable, but also on stepping up its quality control in general (as reflected by last year’s ranking). Indeed, it’s not the actual quality of the vehicles that brought the ranking down, but the problems drivers faced with the technology in their cars.

The feeling I got from talking to the teams behind these products is that they are quite aware of the user interface problems these current systems have. Indeed, Ford just started a new program a few weeks ago that allows new owners to get training in how to use their new MyFord Touch and SYNC systems. Ideally, these tools would be so easy to operate that users/drivers wouldn’t need this training, but for the time being, this is definitely a step in the right direction. It’s also worth noting that many of the functions of the MyFord Touch and SYNC systems can be access through voice commands.

It’s a Computer, So Fixing these Problems Shouldn’t be Too Hard

No doubt, however, these systems will improve quickly. One thing to remember for those of us in the Internet world is that the lead time between designing a car and putting it into production is measured in years and not weeks. When BMW released its ill-designed new iDrive interface, it faced a similar backlash, though it took the German automaker a few years to correct these issues. From what I’ve seen from Ford, I think the company will react much faster than this, especially given that existing MyFord Touch and SYNC installs can be updated relatively easily.

Disclaimer: Ford provided transportation and lodging for my recent trip to Detroit.

Image credit: Dave_7

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