Infotainment systems — those conglomerations of audio, navigation, phone connectivity, and other electronics — are more than ever a defining feature of new cars.
These systems offer a way for automakers to draw in young buyers and differentiate themselves in an age where cars are more similar than different.
For automakers, they’re big money makers. A July 2013 study by Visiongain found the global automotive infotainment market will be worth $31.72 billion this year, and more in years to come.
They're a big deal in China, too, where more and more automakers are looking to expand sales. "T he current OEM market in China is worth $2.7 billion; that includes audio, audio/video, navigation, and embedded telematics," Michael Liu, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, said in an interview.
But they’re bad news for drivers for two reasons: They don’t work well, and they’re distracting.
In October, Consumer Reports issued its annual auto reliability rankings. It revoked the “recommended” status from the “otherwise excellent” 2013 Honda Accord V6, citing “notable audio-system problems.”
The influential magazine is clearly not a fan of these systems, writing: “The more gadgets a car has, the greater the chance for things to go wrong. So it’s not surprising that one of the key problem areas in our survey results centered on in-car electronics, including the proliferating suite of audio, navigation, communication, and connected systems in newer cars.”
The magazine has little love for Cadillac’s CUE system (“unintuitive and frustrating”), and really can’t stand Ford and Lincoln’s MyTouch systems as especially bad (“distracting and frustrating”). In its brand rankings, “Ford and Lincoln crowd the bottom, with only Mini scoring worse. These domestic brands are hampered primarily by the MyTouch infotainment systems.”
Consumer Reports may be curmudgeonly when it comes to new technology, but its recommendations still carry weight. Losing recommended status over a faulty infotainment system is nothing to just brush off.
In my reviews, I've complained or worried about annoying and distracting systems in cars from Cadillac, Lincoln, Tesla, Lexus, BMW, and more. The problem is everywhere.
Driven To Distraction
Intelligent Mechatronic Systems Inc. (IMS), which provides telematics and infotainment technologies for cars, allows drivers to hear email and text messages with its iLane In-Car Infotainment system. IMS calls the system “safe" and "distraction-free."
But a recent study by AAA casts doubt on the notion that voice recognition technology is safe just because the driver can use it while holding the wheel and looking at the road.
Dr. David Strayer and his team at the University of Utah found mental distractions like sending a text or email, even via voice commands, slows reaction times. On a scale created for the study, they ranked as “high danger.”
No Relief In Sight
Alex Davies / Business Insider
Sophisticated infotainment systems are one way to attract young consumers who are less inclined to buy cars, Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an interview.
The objections of naysayers like Consumer Reports and AAA aren’t enough to dissuade automakers from providing them.
Just about every car you can buy in the U.S. today is quite safe, reliable, and fuel efficient. The spectrum from the worst car to the best one is “almost nothing” now, especially compared to 20 years ago. There are only two things left that really separate today’s models, he argued: styling/image and infotainment.
To stand apart from the pack, then, automakers will keep shoving more features into the center console. No company wants to walk away from a technology that consumers want and their competition offers. The result is a “mini arms race” to offer more functions, more touch screens, more apps.
That really worries me.
I'm No Luddite
This isn’t a cry against advancing technology. It’s a plea for caution.
An Ohio State University study found that in 2010, more than 1,500 pedestrians wound up in the emergency room “for injuries related to using a cell phone while walking.” I’ve had a few close calls myself walking around New York.
Automakers are working to make cars more like cell phones, Brauer said, because that’s what buyers want. But if phones sap us of our ability to walk safely, how can we drive safely with something much like a phone, within reach?
Some automakers disable certain features while the car is in drive. That’s a start, but legal action would be better — that way, no automaker who opts to hold back on the technology front would lose out.
I look forward to the day when self-driving cars dominate every day driving, and I can relax while checking my email or texting friends. But today's cars offer a dangerous middle ground: The all too tempting ability to drive while doing those things.
I realize this won’t stem the tide, but I have to ask: Please stop making these systems so advanced. We don't need touchscreens, we need to keep our eyes and minds on the road.
Or hurry up and build me a self-driving car, so I can get back to texting.
More From Business Insider