Voices

Car makers can be their own worst enemy

You won’t give a car maker your business if you don’t trust it. The first job of a car is to start in the morning and get you there reliably. All the systems must just work.

ONE OF THE biggest insults you could hurl at a manufacturer has always been that it got its customers to finish its development. In other words it rushed some piece of engineering onto the market before it was ready. The result would be failures, warranty claims, and unhappy customers.

So I’m amazed how some manufacturers have suddenly started playing fast and loose with those reputations. They launch new tech onto the market long before it’s fully reliable or useable.

I’m talking about the bundles of connectivity features and apps that are clogging the centre-screens of at least the top versions of pretty well every new car.

Customers are just expected to put up with things that work only sporadically, are poorly explained in the manual (even the on-line manual), and generally can’t be relied upon. Never mind that in many cases they’re expensive optional extras, or come with hefty monthly subscription fees.

Voice activation: for many years this was all-but useless in most cars. Ever tried speaking a destination address into the nav system? That said, some systems do now work better. Their secret is to operate like Siri and Cortana and Google Now/Assistant. They send your voice over the air to a server that has far more powerful speech processing. And then the deciphered command is sent back to the car.

Which works provided you have good cell data reception. If you don’t it, er, doesn’t.

Same with navigation system traffic data. Sometimes it’s accurate and lets you swerve a jam. That might make you slightly smug. Sometimes it’s total baloney and your arrival time will be way off the prediction. This will make you spitting mad.

Because we are human beings, our anger when these systems fail is far greater than our happiness when they succeed.

It’s common to get built-in support for third-party apps. You can send a Glympse, listen to Aupeo or Stitcher, send status updates to your social feeds, book a parking space or find an EV recharging spot. All from your car’s screen and microphone.

Well, so they tell you. But in most cases these processes are user-hostile, poorly documented and glitchy in the extreme.

And when they fail, who gets the blame? I reckon it’s the car manufacturer itself. The true cause may well lie elsewhere: a weak data signal, a badly-written app from a partner, an outage at a third-party data centre. But you won’t think like that. You’ll blame the car – you paid the manufacturer for this infotainment system after all, and now it isn’t working.

You can understand why the car makers include these functions. Because if they don’t they’d look utterly flat-footed beside the fast-moving phone makers and app developers.

So they go into partnership with these tech companies. But they miserably fail to ensure that the tech companies provide functions that have the very level of reliability and trustwortihiness we expect from a car.

I was recently flown to Munich by BMW so they could demonstrate how their cars would link with Amazon’s Alexa. “Alexa, how much charge is in my i3?” said the engineer. Alexa didn’t understand. He repeated the question. Still no joy. If a manufacturer’s own staged demo doesn’t work, how’s an actual customer going to get on?

I ranted at a BMW manager that they were busily undermining the brand’s reputation for quality hard-won over a century of engineering effort.

“Oh no,” came the reply, “Our customers enjoy being beta testers.”

In your dreams they do.


Paul Horrell

Paul Horrell

Paul's working life has been paced out in cars. He began road-testing when the VW Golf was in its second generation. It's now in its eighth. He covers much more than the tyre-smoking part of the road-test landscape. He roots around in the financial machinations of the car corporations and the apparent voodoo of the technologies. Then he clarifies those complications so his general readers – too busy to lodge their heads up the industry's nether regions – get the fast track on what matters and what doesn't. A freelance writer living in London, he usually gets around the city by bicycle, which adds to his (sometimes justified) reputation as a bit green and a bit of a lefty. He's a member of Europe's Car of the Year jury.