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.


  • Rye an

    Just check out the ‘features list’ of the modern car.
    It seems to be a pissing contest of “mine’s bigger than yours”.
    Maybe it’s more about distracting those who like driving so that they can do away with the steering wheel in the future autonomous vehicle.

  • Monty

    It’s the IT industry’s method. Release an idea that vaguely works and may be even of some use. Sit back and wait for the storm of protest and drip feed bug fixes until the protest dies down. By that time there will be a whole new software package released and the cycle starts again. With a bit of luck the new product will not be backwards compatible so the consumers takes another hit. Is Microsoft the most despised company on the planet? Possibly. Yet car makers are not content to take hits from their own failures, they have to add IT disasters as well. Maybe they expect to get as rich as Bill Gates in the process.

  • 1250

    It look like we are sheep and except all the hype ,so REALY just take the car for a drive and let your KIDS play with the electrics !!!! they will tell you what’s good and what’s shit , as they are savvyer then their mum and dad ???

  • Andrew Riles

    I agree Paul, though I feel you’re just scratching the surface of this issue….how various manufacturers have handled things like recalls, warranty claims and defective components over the years says a lot about their customer service attitude….

  • Alan

    I didn’t realise how frustrating one feature on my latest car (2016 PRIUS) would be. A piece of glass.

    A radio/phone/CD etc system (without Apple/Android play) has no knobs or buttons. Just a sheet of glass. Yes, there are some steering wheel buttons but they’re limited in function, but for instance to fast forward a track you need to look away from the road, find the right small spot, hold your finger over same spot on the glass screen and hope that the movement of the car doesn’t make it skip tracks instead GRRRR.

    To decrease volume, there is the slowest response of the steering wheel buttons – no MUTE button. By pressing a sequence of 2 buttons you can mute – but to reduce the volume, you have to un-mute first. Crazy. My previous cars had knobs which you could spin quickly to cut volume almost instantly.

    I’ll know next car to look for buttons and knobs.

    I absolutely love the RADAR Cruise, Heads up Display and other aspects of the car (and using very little fuel) – but they wrecked the whole thing with a lousy piece of glass.

    In other markets, they get knobs – but not here.

    • Guest

      You know you can change that screen with an android box attachment so it can run google maps etc. Sure beats the closed (crappy) system Toyota makes.

      • Alan

        Thanks – my android is almost dead (had to give it heart massage this morning, defibrillator last week) – I’ll check that out when I get my new one. I don’t know why – but TOYOTA has copped so much criticism worldwide about their system, but they pretend that Android Auto (& the fruity one too) don’t exist – over 2 yrs now, the fruity one over 3 yrs ago.

        • Guest

          Don’t bother thinking they will every let anyone other than themselves control what in car entertainment system. They would risk too much relying on another company to do their interface that they have no control over. They were/are building their own one but being such a big company makes them a target for add on mods which is available to the latest iterations of the ICE system.

          The android box is a module that connects to the back which can then connect to any phone. There’s some YouTube clips on how to install and how it operates.

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.