LORRAINE SOMMERFELD, POSTMEDIA
The word “infotainment” was coined to describe television shows (and other media) that combined information with entertainment back in the 1980s. If you watched “Schoolhouse Rock”, you were way ahead of your infotainment time. Today, the term most often rears its ugly head when we’re talking about cars. Infotainment systems are developed and redeveloped in a constant rush to remain relevant, but that doesn’t ensure they’ll always get it right.
There have been hurdles, and many manufacturers have failed to clear them. A J.D. Power study released last month shows that “infotainment is the most problematic category: Almost one-fourth of all problems cited by new-vehicle owners relate to infotainment.”
“Top complaints include built-in voice recognition; Android Auto/Apple CarPlay connectivity; touchscreens; built-in navigation systems; and Bluetooth® connectivity,” it explains.
For something that has been part of nearly every car for over a decade, that’s not what manufacturers want to hear. We’re supposed to be blown away by every new and improved version; instead, the aggravation some of these systems present their owners is enough to make some people walk away from the whole brand.
At the 2010 Detroit Auto Show, Ford unveiled the result of a partnership with Microsoft: MyFord Touch. It was expensive; it had been years in the making; it looked cool; it was awful. Frozen screens, bad GPS mapping, and a chronic inability to sync a phone were only half of it.
Screen lags were so long, and menus were hidden so deeply in layer after layer of choices, it led to a class-action lawsuit in the U.S. on vehicles from 2011 to 2013. It was settled last year for US$17 million. Honda is facing a similar suit filed last year. Subaru recently settled a suit over their Starlink system. If you’re going to tie that “info” to that “-tainment,” it had better work.
Ford’s newer systems proved it learned from its mistakes. Some growing pains are physical, though. Cadillac is facing a class-action lawsuit because of faulty screens on some 2013 to 2017 models that had owners claiming “there are physical issues with the system, such as de-lamination of the screen along with peeling and bubbling that essentially render the touchscreen interface inoperable and in need of expensive repairs.”
Some of our other biggest beefs with today’s infotainment systems?
Voice commands that don’t work
They’ve gotten better, but if your car’s system is hit-and-miss, you’ll end up not using it, and that removes the safety feature you’re supposed to be gaining from having it.
I had a 2006 Montana with OnStar and couldn’t even get it hooked up from my driveway after several of sessions yelling at it. It never functioned right, I eventually gave up, and was glad I never had to count on it while lying in a ditch swinging upside-down from my seat belt. GM now has very good systems. I know people who love their OnStar. I just wasn’t one of them.
Trackpads that are annoying to use
In the leap to make systems that mimic what we’re most used to – the tablets and laptops we use elsewhere – sometimes automakers go too far. A tiny trackpad is annoying enough to use, let alone while you’re focusing on driving.
Tiny screens we can’t see
There’s a reason screens are getting bigger and bigger. We expect the clarity of a tablet. While tiny screens are admittedly the province of entry-level cars, there are times you’re better off mounting your cell phone to the dash and skipping the screen.
Big screens that are too distracting
This is a catch-22 for manufacturers. We want large screens, but they have to put them somewhere. Mount them low, where they’ve traditionally gone, and they can’t fit them in. You also risk a driver taking their eyes from the road too much.
So, they mount them high. Sure, it’s safer to have it in my eye-line, but it’s also taking up a huge chunk of visual real estate that can take some getting used to.
Any-size screens that just freeze
If your computer bluescreens on your lap, it’s a nuisance. If a system you’re depending on does it at 100 km/h, it’s dangerous.
Functions buried under layers and layers
Jaguar Land Rover is bad at this. Gorgeous systems that are a pain to use. If I want to turn on my heated seats, I should be able to do it with a quick switch. Instead, I have to drill down through screen after screen.
It’s not the only one, but you can’t blame owners for getting frustrated trying to learn how their infotainment system works when the manuals for the systems are often fatter than the manuals for the cars themselves.
Systems without a home button
Keep it simple. At no time should I be hunting for a way to return the system to home base.
Systems you just can’t sync to
I should be able to sync my phone up to a system in a minute. Or less.
People want simplicity, and they want intuitiveness. We want knobs and dials for things that make sense to be controlled by knobs and dials, like temperature and volume.
Ford put back many of these after the initial outcry in 2010, saying it was restoring “redundant” knobs for those who wanted them.
The knobs weren’t redundant, the screen directives they were replacing were.
By now, every manufacturer should know what consumers want. We’re surveyed endlessly, and places like J.D. Power and Consumers Reports likewise troll the vehicle-owning populace for feedback.
Sometimes manufacturers, in a rush to show off their software chops, seem to forget we’ll be more dazzled by something we can actually figure out. It’s crucial they get these infotainment systems right, because they now control more than just music and a Bluetooth connection. Many of the features you are so excited to have on your new car might be controlled through that screen, including cameras and climate.
They have to work, they have to work properly, and they have to work all the time.
Copyright Postmedia Network Inc., 2020