In-car infotainment, a boon or bane? Will it make cars better?

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In-car infotainment systems have been heralded as the next big thing in cars.  It is something that makes your driving experience even better and easier, giving you information about the weather, road conditions, traffic and even how fast you have to drive to make sure that you do not run into any red lights.  It could also tell you that you need some preventive maintenance work done, or when it is time to change oil.  At the very least, it could play your favorite music or tell you about the latest news while you are stuck in monstrous traffic.

Seen in this light, it is easy to see the value that in-car infotainment systems bring to new cars, and might even drive the demand up and increase car sales over the next few years.  Automotive manufactures are certainly banking on in-car infotainment systems to help get people into dealerships doors.

Or so they would like to believe!

AOL Autos have reported that while car manufacturers are waxing optimistic and praising in-car infotainment systems, some consumers are not that happy with it.  AOL Autos Associate Editor Pete Bigelow writes that there are customers who have had problems with their brand new cars because of the in-car infotainment systems.  Bigelow cites the example of Robert Hoffman whose MyLincoln Touch system did not recognize voice commands and some of its featured hanged and froze.  What’s more, despite claims by Lincoln that you could use their MyLincoln Touch system with your phone and other mobile devices, Hoffman could never pair his iPod with the system.

A widespread problem

Lincoln is not alone, though.  It seems that Ford and Cadillac are also struggling with in-car infotainment systems and these are bringing down their reliability scores.  Bigelow cites a Consumer Reports study that shows these three car makers are among the bottom five in the reliability rankings.  In fact, more than 15% of new vehicle owners are having problems with the infotainment systems in Ford C-Max, Cadillac XTS, and Ford Taurus, among other bands.

And 15% of the survey’s total sample, which totalled more than 1.1 million respondents, is a lot.

Ford and its in-car infotainment curse

MyFord Touch

Out of the companies in the bottom five, the curse of badly designed and implemented in-car infotainment has hit Ford the worst.  In fact, only one of the 31 models Ford had in the study was above average, all the others were below par.

The experience has been very bad that Ford and Lincoln are now facing a class action suit.  In a July 2013 story, Automotive News wrote that the Center for Defensive Driving has put together a class action against Ford at the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California.  The suit alleges that the infotainment system Ford used for its newer models often froze, and did not respond to both voice and touch commands.  It also did not connect well with mobile devices.   The suit also alleges that Ford knew about the defects but hid the fact from customers, letting them buy cars with defective infotainment systems.

As early as November 2012, Reuters has reported that four out of every ten Ford vehicles had problems with MyFord Touch.

The Center for Defensive Driving claims that these malfunctions were largely inconveniences but it can pose a security and safety risk as well.

This is just too bad because, as James R. Healey at the USAToday writes, Ford’s driving test scores are higher than Toyota’s and Honda’s and that of other highflying brands.  It can even give Lexus a run for its money.

More than that, Consumer Reports writes that not working properly is not always the problem.  Sometimes, it is adding too many features that users feel closed in and confused with an overly, and needlessly, complicated system.

These in-car infotainment systems present a problem because more and more car makers are using these systems to control a car’s temperature, and even its audio and speaker system.  So if there is a problem with the infotainment, you may find yourself driving in the snow with the heater off.  And that is simply because you cannot figure out how to operate your car’s climate controls.

What happened?

Carmakers think that in-car infotainment systems are a godsend, so much so that the world’s best automotive manufacturers are investing in coming up with these systems.  For some time, these systems allowed auto makers such as Ford and Lincoln to increase the prices of their latest models.  Why then are consumers not biting?  And worst, why are customers suing?

For quite some time, Ford did not address the problem directly.  Instead, they just came out with service bulletins and extended the warranty on the Ford C-Max.  Then they have to admit that there was indeed a problem, but instead of coming up with better infotainment systems, they issued software upgrades.  But it is very apparent that the problem was not entirely because of the software.  No amount of software upgrades would correct the problems with the touch screen, nor would it make voice recognition better.

It certainly did not make the systems more user-friendly.

A big reason for Ford’s in-car infotainment woes is that the technology is pretty new.  Ford is a carmaker, not a Samsung, LG or Apple.  Ford is clearly struggling and they do not have the expertise to correct things.  What’s more, they are using Microsoft to power their in-car infotainment systems.  Microsoft might be a good idea for desktops and laptops but the company is not the perfect choice for mobile systems.  For one, it is proprietary and it would be difficult for developers other than the Redmond engineers to come in and help solve their problems.  The company has realized this and has in fact announced plans to switch to Blackberry QNX, which is what Audi and BMW use for their own infotainment systems.

For Ford, they came into the technology a little too hasty and a little too soon.  Ford was enjoying great success with its previous in-car infotainment systems where there were physical knobs and buttons that drivers can rely on.  The new MyFord Touch took away these buttons and knobs, hence making unresponsive touch screens an even bigger problem.

The thing with Ford is that they were ready to cut corners in order to come out with a futuristic in-car infotainment system ahead of their competitors.  Perhaps they were buoyed by the success of the previous SYNC system, the one that still had physical knobs and buttons.  Maybe they were blinded by the desire to offer their customers something new and something different.  The MyFord Touch system certainly combined a certain wow factor with the novelty of being the first.

In that haste, the carmaker forgot all about safety and general user experience.

Still a great technology

But with all the faults and errors on Ford’s part, in-car infotainment systems are still a great technology.

The thing with being the first in technology is that you are bound to encounter some growing pains.  The sad thing is that Ford and Lincoln felt most of the pain.  Maybe it was their fault, maybe not, but immature technology takes time to grow and iron the kinks out.

The good thing is that the technology has grown in the recent years that you now have very responsive touch screens, far more advanced connectivity and telematics technology are now available and more developers are coming in.

In short, you can now have better hardware to work with and better software and apps to play with.  You even have mature operating systems such as Google’s Android and Apple’s in-car operating system to power your in-car infotainment platform.  And all of these are making cars better.

And another takeaway from Ford’s painful experience is that infotainment systems are big.  So much so that it can make or break a car brand.  All things being equal, these infotainment systems can make your car brand the best in the world.  Or having a poorly executed in-car systems in place would certainly drag you down.

Aside from Ford, Cadillac has also realized this.  The carmaker has its CTS line of cars, which by itself is a very desirable automobile.  It has state-of-the-art driving capabilities and it looks gorgeous inside and out, but the controls were a turn off.  Trying to adjust your radio’s volume could be frustrating enough to make a grown man cry.  Honda similarly has problems with its Hondalink system. Hondalink pairs your car with your smartphone and allows you to use apps based on the cloud or the Internet.

The Consumer Reports survey might have exposed how poorly Lincoln, Ford and Cadillac are implementing in-car infotainment systems, but it also showed that some companies are doing it right.  Acura, Toyota and Lexus, along with top-notcher Subaru have come up at the top of the reliability list.  But the best brands who have great infotainment systems worth noting are Audi, Lexus, BMW and Chrysler.

So if you are an automaker and you do not want customers to suffer from reliability problems and end up taking the car back to you, take a look at how BMW et. al. are doing it, and stop giving in-car infotainment systems a bad rep.

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Sherly Mendoza is a banker by profession, but she's been blogging and writing tech articles since 2012. She's a woman fascinated with all things related to telematics, wearables, gadgets, the Internet, fashion, health and lifestyle. Sherly is also a new mom to a bouncing baby boy. She just gave birth last August 2013. Sherly reads and follows several tech and fashion blogs and websites. Some of them include Gizmodo, Engadget, Marie Claire and Pete Cashmore of Mashable. She's a Mac and PC user. Sherly is teaching herself on how to use the cPanel for website management. She's also fascinated with the Internet of Things, its applications and potentials. Sherly maintains her portfolio and blog at http://www.TechyFashionista.com.