A few months ago, I was having a conversation with a few area auto writers about infotainment systems. Interestingly enough, there wasn’t one system that anyone thought was truly great. Most of what we were discussing was which ones were the least frustrating to use. Because consumers like the increasing availability of modern features, we’ve come to accept that infotainment systems aren’t going to be perfectly as simple or straightforward as it used to be when the only controls needed were for the radio and the air conditioning.
Other people are clearly frustrated with their infotainment systems, as well. When J.D. Power released the results of its most recent Initial Quality Survey, the most important factor in how brands scored was their infotainment systems. Luckily, the problems I’ve seen aren’t impossible to fix.
At the most basic level, there’s nothing more frustrating than trying to use a system that isn’t powerful enough to handle basic tasks. If the lag between inputting a command and that command being executed is long enough to be noticeable, it seriously harms the user experience. I had a number of complaints about Mitsubishi’s system, but the fact that it was so slow to respond to commands was definitely the biggest one. When I had to delete a stored phone in order to pair my own with the system, it took close to 30 seconds to do so. Nothing else took near as long, the whole system was still way too slow.
It’s also important for companies to minimize the number of commands needed to perform the most common tasks. If I want to customize a car’s settings so the suspension is in comfort mode, the throttle is in sport mode, and the steering is in normal mode, I don’t expect to be able to do that with two commands. What I would like, however, is to not have to hunt through several menus before I find the Bluetooth settings that allow me to pair my phone.
Uconnect actually does a great job with this sort of thing. The Chrysler 300C I reviewed recently didn’t have dedicated buttons for controlling the heated and ventilated seats, but there was a very clearly marked button on the home screen that immediately took me to the seat controls and allowed me to change what I wanted. Burying that sort of thing deep within a sub-menu would have been incredibly frustrating.
When it comes to inputting information, quite a few automakers have chosen to go with a multi-functional knob, but for more than one or two clicks, a touchscreen is far superior. There are certainly some situations where a knob works well, and BMW has refined iDrive to the point that it’s one of the best systems on the market, but in most cases, a touchscreen is the better option.
Some manufacturers, like Hyundai on its Genesis sedan, have gone with the combination of both a knob and a touchscreen that works pretty well. Typing without a touchscreen, though, is nothing but an exercise in frustration. Having it especially makes inputting an address into the GPS far easier.
GPS navigation is also getting to the point where it’s considered a standard feature, but just because a car has it doesn’t mean that drivers aren’t still going to use their phones instead. A quick way to make sure I use my phone instead of the built in navigation system is if there isn’t a readily available option to input a location by name without hunting through all the points of interest.
If I want to stop at Starbucks, I don’t want to have to sort through nearby coffee shops until I find a Starbucks. I want to be able to just type in “Starbucks.” If that’s not an easy option, I’m much more likely to pull out my phone and use it instead. It might technically be more dangerous, but I’m sure most people do the exact same thing.
I’m also far less likely to text while driving if the system will read my text messages to me and let me dictate a response. Talking on the phone while driving is certainly not preferable, but as anyone who knows how to drive stick can tell you, driving with only one hand on the wheel is reasonably safe the vast majority of the time. Texting while driving, on the other hand, is really just varying degrees of unsafe.
Getting a system to read text messages is obviously more complicated than handling a phone call, but at the same time, the increase in driver safety has to be worth the investment. From the brief demonstrations I’ve seen of Apple CarPlay and even Ford Sync 3, it can be done fairly well, but making it effective requires developing voice controls far beyond what most systems are capable of.
If I want Siri to give me directions to the nearest Starbucks, all I have to do once I’ve activated voice input on my iPhone is say, “Give me directions to the nearest Starbucks.” That’s it. I get directions to the nearest Starbucks. If I want to text my dad, all I have to say is, “Text Dad my flight lands at 7:30 p.m. on Saturday,” and my phone will compose a text message for me to double check before sending.
The voice control on most cars, meanwhile, is inaccurate to the point of being mostly useless. Assuming you make it through the three or four steps it takes to finally say the location you want directions to, the system will inevitably mess it up even if you want directions to a common destination like Walmart. Considering how many Americans shop at Walmart, you’d think automakers would make sure its voice control could understand that one without a problem.
The good news is, from what I can tell, automakers aren’t sitting back and ignoring these issues. Moving towards offering Apple CarPlay and Android Auto is a step in the right direction, but they’re also making improvements to their own systems. Ford Sync has been drastically improved, as has HondaLink. In the next few years, it’s possible that infotainment frustrations could become a thing of the past.