This past Labor Day weekend, I was offered the chance to test drive the 2009 Aston Martin V8 Vantage coupe. I jumped at it, of course. It's not every day one gets to test out a $135,000 sports car. Plus, after a couple years of writing stories about falling car sales, high gasoline prices, job cuts, and bankruptcy speculation, I figured our readers could use a break from the Sturm und Drang of today's car business
It wasn't to be. I got the sexy sports car's V8 engine to start just a couple of times before it completely stalled out in my driveway. The car might as well have been a beautifully sculpted cement barrier.
The first time it had problems was at the grocery store. While I was backing out of a parking space, someone cut me off. I hit the brake just before the clutch, and the car stalled. That was my fault. But I couldn't get it to restart. A woman in high heels offered to help me push it into a spot. I let her steer while I shoved the beast into a parking space. After 20 minutes of inserting the crystal key fob into a slot in the dash and hitting the start button, it finally fired up, and I got home. But after that, nothing. If only the car had a simple key and ignition.
So I called Aston Martin roadside service. The polite woman on the phone said the problem was most likely a software issue. Either that, or the electronic system couldn't read the key fob inserted in the dash to start it up. In any case, someone would be by to pick up the car.
Hey, even brand new expensive cars have problems. But this is inexcusable. Carmakers have been larding their new models up with software and electronics for several years. Some of the new goodies add very little or nothing to the drive experience. In many cases, the new technology is just resulting in more problems and complaints.
One point must be made: A lot of the new software and electronics in today's cars does deliver vast improvements. High-end cars like the BMW 7-series may have as many as 80 computers on board. Some advanced features, such as traction control systems, can help drivers avoid accidents. The same is true for some of the latest cruise control devices, which warn when a driver is bearing down too close on the cars up ahead. Other systems boost fuel economy by optimizing fuel intake and engine timing far better than their mechanical predecessors did.
But in the case of the Vantage (and Aston Martin isn't alone), the malfunction in question comes from a device that adds nothing to the consumer. You get to stick a key into a slot in the dashboard and push it. Then the car starts at the push of the button. Oh boy!
Tech for Tech's Sake
A lot of cars today have similar start mechanisms. Even Nissan's (NSANY) smallest, $15,000 Versa compact (BusinessWeek.com, 9/22/06) allows the driver to start the car without inserting a key in the dash. As long as the key fob is in the car, it sends a signal to the ignition it's a go. Turn a knob on the steering column and the car starts. Just don't valet the car and walk off with the fob in your pocket. The valet won't be able to move your car once he turns it off.
In the Vantage, you get to push the back of the key fob while it's in the slot and the car—presumably—will start. I didn't feel like James Bond while going through this exercise. Even when it worked, this startup feature added nothing. It's technology for technology's sake.
This Aston Martin was made by Ford (F), even though the company sold the luxury marque to British racing mogul David Richards and a pair of Kuwaiti investment firms in March 2007 for $925 million. It is unclear what changes the new owners will make. But if they want my input, I would urge them to strip away such unnecessary complications and get down to the business of enhancing Aston's reputation for performance.
And before anyone calls me a Luddite who doesn't get it, consider these facts. According to the National Highway Traffic & Safety Administration's Office of Defects Investigation, 10.5% of all recalls in 2006 were software-related. That affected 1.1 million vehicles. In 1999, just 3.5% of recalls were software-related, affecting a total of 61,500 vehicles.
Sure, there are more computers and electronics in cars. So the rise isn't necessarily an indicator that the new gadgets are poorly made. But they certainly are generating more complaints. David Sargent, vice-president for automotive research at J.D. Power & Associates, says that electronics generate 40% of consumer complaints in the company's annual Initial Quality Study. Sometimes the complaints are because something didn't work, Sargent says. Often consumers gripe that they can't figure out how to use something.
Hey, technology brings us many great new wonders. And it's even more wonderful when it actually works.
Click here to see examples of automotive high tech that actually makes sense.