Is It Time for a Startup Wizard for New Cars?

The Ford Mondeo Titanium's interior Photograph by Jock Fistick/Bloomberg

Car-quality surveyor J.D. Power has released its latest Initial Quality Survey, and it comes to a pretty interesting conclusion: Cars basically work fine, as far as reliability is concerned—it’s the interactive technology inside them that’s the problem. They write:

“Nearly two-thirds of the problems experienced in the first 90 days of ownership are related to the vehicle’s design, as opposed to components that malfunction. For example, the component may be working as designed, but owners deem it a problem because it may be difficult to understand or operate.”

To put this in real-world terms, your car’s Bluetooth-pairing function is complicated and frustrating enough for you to punch the dashboard, but it’s not “broken.” It’s working exactly the way it was designed. It was just designed incredibly poorly. The same can be said for indecipherable navigation systems, intrusive weather alerts, and impossible-to-understand music-sharing services.

This seems true across a range of manufacturers. You hear it all the time from people who have to deal with new systems such as MyFord Touch, BMW’s iDrive, Mercedes-Benz’s Comand, Audi’s MMI, and so forth: Consumers just want to do some simple things, but the car’s software has made it complicated.

Fortunately, this is fixable. A lot what’s of wrong with tech in cars today is an interface issue, which is to say that it’s software-related. So, one hopes, carmakers can make updates to their software to address many of these issues. Ford pushed through a major update to its MyFord Touch system back in March 2012. The changes included larger touchscreen buttons and simpler menus, as well as enhanced voice-control features. Even that, it would appear, has not been enough: The automaker, it has been reported, will be restoring physical controls to some of its dashboards in the years ahead.

Since much of this is software-related, I’d like to make a suggestion to the car industry: Make startup wizards for your cars. PC and smartphone makers have been doing this for years. When you get a new iPhone, you’re taken through a series of steps that link you to your e-mail, connects you to the cloud, and sets up various preferences. Carmakers should do the same. Why can’t you have a mode where a new owner sits in the driver’s seat and follows spoken and visual instructions from an onboard virtual guide? “Thank you for purchasing a new Ford. Let’s get started with some basic details: What’s your name? Where do you live? Do you want to connect your phone wirelessly to the car?” And so on. If the auto industry would create a satisfying 30-minute startup procedure, they may save themselves weeks and months of customer complaints.

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