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Some drivers fully embrace—even crave—new technologies. Yet a tech-features study by J.D. Power finds that others long for simpler times, at least when it comes to their cars. As a result, many digital features go unused, and, if anything, owners may not even know they’re there. Worse, the 2021 Tech Experience Index (TXI) finds that new technology often is responsible for a vehicle’s most serious quote quality problems: Often the feature is there, it works if the driver understands the technology, but the automaker didn’t make it drop-dead simple to use.
“New-vehicle prices are at an all-time high, partly as a result of an increased level of content,” said Kristin Kolodge, executive director of human machine interface at J.D. Power. “This is fine if owners are getting value for their money, but some features seem like a waste to many owners.”
One Pedal Driving a Hit, Gesture Control a Miss
There’s no question that some new technologies can surprise and delight owners. Among those with battery-electric vehicles, the most popular feature is One-Pedal Driving—which amps up an electric car‘s regenerative braking system used to recapture energy normally lost when slowing down. That allows a motorist to lift off on the accelerator alone to slow or even stop, rather than having to jump back and forth from throttle to brake. It works like a go-cart or riding mower: When you’re not on the gas, you’re slowing down.
At the other extreme is gesture control, which ranked at the bottom with owners where this technology is available (BMW). It’s supposed to let you use hand movements to perform tasks like changing radio stations or adjusting the volume. But, for those who had the feature, gesture systems suffered from “poor performance [and an] extremely high” number of problems, according to a summary of the TXI. For example, more than 41% of motorists with gesture control complained about the feature compared to just 8% with One-Pedal Driving capabilities. (To be fair to automakers: You don’t have to use them.)
Technical troubles can be a serious headache, as Power has discovered with other research. Digital features are now responsible for the majority of “problems” reported by owners in the annual Initial Quality Study.
“Consumers want this stuff but, but many are having trouble with it,” Dave Sargent, Power’s head of automotive operations, said when the 2021 IQS was released in August. “It’s not that consumers don’t know how to use it. It’s just not working.”
Motorists don’t always want all the features built into their vehicles. In many instances, automakers go to great lengths to develop technologies that either don’t get used or owners don’t even know they have. General Motors is one of several automakers developing in-car marketplaces. But the Tech Experience Index reveals that 61% of owners have never used these features, while 51% say they have no need for them.
Rear-View, Ground-View Still in Demand
Among all the new technologies coming to market, the TXI found that rear-view camera mirrors and ground-view cameras–commonly called surround-view or 360-degree cameras–are two of the features most wanted on new vehicles. Camera mirrors, pioneered by Gentex, replace the inside mirror with one that is both reflective mirror and LCD display and provide a near-180-degree rear view. But for users who use bifocal or reading glasses, it takes a moment for the eyes to refocus on something 18 inches from their eyes.
“When technology is effectively executed in a vehicle, it positively influences an owner’s decision to purchase another vehicle equipped with that technology,” Power noted in its summary.
How well technology is executed varies significantly from one brand to another, however. Not surprisingly, luxury brands tend to offer more digital features—though they are migrating faster than ever down to mainstream models.
No. 1 Genesis Far Ahead of the Pack (Except There’s Tesla)
Among premium brands, Genesis ranked at the top. (Tesla likely would have been number one, Power reported, but the automaker won’t provide info for contacting owners in 15 states. Its raw score was 34 points higher than Genesis.) Cadillac, Volvo, BMW and Mercedes-Benz rounded out the top five, while Porsche was dead last among high-line marques. Alfa Romeo, Acura, Jaguar and Audi didn’t fare much better. Of the top 10, the first five were premium brands, the next five were mainstream.
Two Korean brands also topped the mainstream list, starting with Hyundai and then Kia. They were followed by Nissan, Subaru and GMC, among the best mainstream brands. Mitsubishi ranked dead last among all brands, with Mini, Jeep, Dodge and Chrysler faring a little better.
Cadillac and Ram Top Convenience
Among the top-ranked individual products, Power spotlighted the Cadillac Escalade and Ram 1500 for their “convenience,” with the Lexus IS and Hyundai Elantra called out for the effective use of “emerging automation.” The Lexus IS was also highlighted in the “infotainment and connectivity” category, along with the Kia K5 among mainstream models. Cadillac Super Cruise (shown on the feature image) provides safe, hands-off driving for extended periods on limited-access highways; a camera watches that the driver’s eyes remain watching the road.
Whether motorists will become more comfortable with all the technology in their vehicles is far from clear. Research shows they want it if it works and it’s simple. Surround cameras are an example: Put the car in reverse and a birds-eye view of the car, parking lanes, and nearby obstacles displays on the center screen. But there is one bit of good news. More and more new models are capable of getting over-the-air updates, by using the car’s integrated cellular modem (that can also provide WiFi). That means manufacturers can fix problems and even add new features without requiring a visit to a dealer.