Drivers are finding automaker apps increasingly difficult to use, study finds

JD Power surveyed 1,010 drivers of 2021 model year vehicles using 32 different apps. The biggest complaint was the slow response times.Joanne Elves/The Globe and Mail

You can make purchases with your smartphone, monitor your home security system and even open the front door remotely. But when it comes to controlling car functions, consumers are finding apps offered by automakers increasingly difficult to use.

According to a recent study by JD Power, automotive applications linked to your smartphone are “one of the main pain points for customers”. Poor vehicle app performance is also among the most problematic issues in its annual Initial Quality Study (IQS).

“Automakers are definitely behind the implementation of a lot of [app technology]“, said Frank Hanley, senior manager of global automotive advisory services for JD Power, in an interview. “They have a rocky start, to say the least.”

JD Power surveyed 1,010 drivers of 2021 model year vehicles using 32 different apps. They include the most common such as Acura/HondaLink, Chrysler/Dodge/Ram Uconnect, and myCadillac/myChevrolet/myGMC.

The biggest complaint is about the slow response times. While survey respondents said they would wait up to 10 seconds for an app to respond, Hanley said some apps take 30 seconds or more. On a 10-point scale, respondents rated the importance of application speed at 8.2, but performance at 6.9.

These applications allow remote control of functions such as locking/unlocking, remote start, window up/down and management of infotainment systems, including navigation. Most also allow you to connect to your phone, via Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. But the performance is well below the promise, Hanley said. The 2021 IQS cited the inability of vehicle and phone technologies to properly connect as the most problematic area for new car owners, “leaving many owners unhappy”.

In fact, smartphone connectivity to vehicle infotainment systems has deteriorated significantly from the previous year, the company reported, likely due to the shift from plug-in to wireless technology.

Anyone who’s seen the familiar “Unable to connect to your car screen” message on their vehicle’s digital screen knows the frustration of smartphone app control. For example, when Tesla recently updated its app software, a frustrated Tesla 3 owner complained on a Reddit forum, calling the update “stupid” and asking “how the hell do I turn on the seat heaters without turning on the air conditioning now?”

Yes, seat warmers. Do you remember the days when you could just press a button? Hanley said the shaky ties to smartphone controls are testing consumer tolerance.

He said automakers are catching up because they’re modernizing app controls on devices designed to be operated by switches, such as windows. One notable exception, Tesla, is ahead of many traditional automakers because its cars were designed with connectivity in mind, he said.

Brett Smith, chief technology officer of the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Michigan, said Tesla “absolutely” has an advantage over traditional automakers, which he calls “the traditional ones.”

“In the lore, there’s an old saying, ‘We do it this way because that’s how we’ve done it in the past. “”

Tesla has been quicker to adopt Near Field Communication (NFC) technology, a wireless radio communication standard, like Bluetooth or WiFi, that can be used to unlock doors and start vehicles. Tesla cars are also equipped with cellular phone hardware that keeps the vehicle constantly connected wherever there is a signal. Hanley said that because electric cars have huge battery capacity, they are in an awake state while ICE cars, with lower battery capacity, put their systems to sleep when not in use.

In an app performance ranking, Tesla came out on top in the JD Power study, gaining 795 points on a 1,000-point scale. The industry average was 697 points. Volvo did almost as well (786), followed by Hyundai/Genesis (760) and Subaru (745). The worst performers were Ram (549), Porsche (569) and Alfa (612).

John Bardwell, Toronto-based automotive products specialist at Bond Brand Loyalty, said consumers should give automakers some slack on apps. Phone makers, he said, share some of the blame for connectivity issues.

“I hate CarPlay, I despise it,” Bardwell said. “And Android Auto isn’t much better.”

Smith notes that app design is more complex for automakers than for phone developers, because the issues are complex – for example, balancing security and usability – and the pace of car development is faster than it is. never has been in the history of the industry. He also noted that apps on a smartphone often aren’t supposed to link to another source, but those in vehicles must.

Hanley said automakers need to improve the speed of apps and develop additional features, such as real-time diagnostic data, if they hope to convince drivers to adopt the technologies.

“They need a game changer – this app that’s irresistible,” Hanley said.

This will become more urgent as automakers want to introduce user fees for in-vehicle applications, including tools to control basic functions such as heated seats.

“Will customers be willing to pay for basic features? ” he said. “You pay 60, 70 or even 80 thousand dollars for a car, and now they want you [buy a subscription] to use the basic functions? Clients [will not be] happy about that.

Smith says that while drivers may need to be patient as apps evolve, “that’s not what consumers are good at.”

Bardwell said phone makers, like Apple and Android-based companies, need to work with automakers to create the best shared experience.

“For me, it’s a work in progress,” Bardwell said. “The day when I can get in a car and the interface is intuitive, that’s when they have it all figured out.”

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