5 frustrating car infotainment interfaces

Driving sure isn't what it used to be. And while that might apply just as well to how that new car accelerates, steers, or rides, here we're talking about what's inside—namely, that big, bright screen in the middle of the dash.

So-called infotainment interfaces are becoming a center point to the in-car experience—an essential part, if you ask some vehicle shoppers. And yet, these systems, which bring features like navigation, hands-free calling connectivity, music and media management, and all sorts of additional information and productivity into the car—and wrap it all together with a single go-to interface—are quite often maligned.

At best, they're the smooth, cohesive way to do everything you might want or need to do from behind the wheel, while keeping your eyes on the road and keeping you from picking up a hand-held device. But at worst, these systems can be distractions in and of themselves.

What makes some of these systems feel natural and others frustrating? Whether considering MyFord Touch (Ford), CUE (Cadillac/GM), iDrive (BMW), COMAND (Mercedes-Benz), MMI (Audi), Uconnect Touch (Chrysler), the elements that make up these interfaces aren't not all that different, fundamentally. Even though their hardware might be significantly different, you have a display screen (touch-sensitive, or capacitive in some cases); there's a rotary or toggle controller on most; voice control is deployed to some degree; and then you have some back-up buttons on the dash and/or steering wheel, with a corresponding graphic array and menu system.

Comparable hardware, very different implementation

“It's the nuance of it that makes them so distinct,” says Mark Boyadjis, a senior analyst at IHS Global insight.

And more than the actual capability of the system—the resolution of the display, or the amount of storage, for instance—it's in the fine user-interface details where some of these systems can delight, or frustrate, Boyadjis notes.

Ford may have jumped the gun in getting its MyFord Touch (voice- and touch-screen-based system) launched several years ago; at first it pushed ahead without regard to some of the fine details—resulting in issues like screen freezes, fonts that changed appearance, and menu options that intermittently disappeared. Although the automaker has fixed many of these hiccups and it's now quite good, notes Boyadjis.

To some degree, it's also the cost of being a forerunner. BMW quite famously first launched its iDrive more than a decade ago with a haptic-feedback rotary controller essentially replacing a sea of buttons. The design result was breathtaking and elegant, but buyers ended up bewildered by the interface, which concealed some relatively common tasks in nested menus, within other menus. Over the years, BMW has brought out several better versions, added better voice control, and brought back some of those buttons; although it's still on our list of frustrating interfaces.

A lot of disappointment out there...

Yet disappointment and dissatisfaction with the hands-free features, as related to these systems, is widespread, and satisfaction with original-equipment navigation systems and interfaces is falling. The market research firm J.D. Power attributed infotainment issues to a tumble in its 2012 Initial Quality Study (IQS), which looks at issues in the first 90 days of vehicle ownership. Hands-free systems not recognizing voice commands was the single most-reported problem, while owner-reported problems with factory hands-free systems has climbed 137 percent in four years.

At the same time, as certain tasks and apps—everything from customized music streams to text-to-voice features to turn-by-turn navigation—are becoming smartphone based, the role of such systems is rapidly changing, going well beyond a hands-free phone interface and a menu system for navigation. For instance, in J.D. Power and Associates' 2012 U.S. Navigation Usage and Research Study, 47 percent of vehicle owners polled indicated that they used a smartphone app for navigation in the vehicle, while 46 percent said that they either “definitely would not” or “probably would not” purchase another factory-installed nav system, if smartphone navigation were integrated.

"Navigation systems are no longer viewed as a stand-alone component, but as part of a media, safety and infotainment package, and are expected to seamlessly work together, but in many cases are falling short of owner expectations," summed J.D. Power analyst Mike VanNieuwkuyk at that time.

After much debate, the High Gear Media editorial team singled out a few interfaces that either perform sluggishly or are stubbornly particular about the way people must interface with them. Although some of the newer screen-based systems like GM's CUE aren't short of issues either, we agree with the analysts we've spoken to and agree that more interface options is a good way to avoid frustration.

All-in-one vehicle interfaces are here to stay, and they're getting better; but follow on to see five systems that could drive you bonkers. And be sure to tell us about your own experiences: What works and what doesn't?


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