Technology Tarnishes Vehicle Dependability for the Second Year in a Row

by Jim Baumer

The vehicles we drive are more technology-oriented than ever before. Once entirely mechanical in design, they are becoming an extension of our digital devices. This has been especially true over the last decade. Given this trend, vehicle manufacturers are aiming for the right mix of safety, convenience and even entertainment.

But as automakers race to put all the latest technology at driver’s fingertips, they may have inadvertently introduced a new set of headaches for owners. This was highlighted with the release of the J.D. Power U.S. Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS) in February, which revealed consumer complaints related to technology were up for the second year in a row.

The study, now in its 27th year, serves as an industry benchmark for both automakers and consumers. It notes problems experienced during the past 12 months by the original owners of three-year-old (in this case, 2013 model) vehicles. Overall dependability is ranked by the level of problems experienced per 100 vehicles, with a lower score indicating higher quality and dependability.

The study again cited technology concerns among consumers, with the industry average ticking up to 152 problems per 100 vehicles, from 147 in 2015. These problems centered on infotainment, navigation and in-vehicle communication systems—what is collectively known as audio, communications, entertainment and navigation—or ACEN. These technology-related issues comprised 20 percent of all customer-reported complaints in the study.

Lexus EX hybrid
The Lexus ES was the most dependable premium model overall, reporting the lowest average number of problems per 100 vehicles.

Renee Stephens, vice president of U.S. automotive at J.D. Power, cited usability issues as a prime area of concern for consumers.

“Most of these are related to built-in systems, not aftermarket add-ons,” Stephens said. “The top two issues were Bluetooth pairing and connectivity, as well as navigation.”

With an avalanche of applications and software, the automotive industry is working overtime to keep up. Then there is the conversation about the future of cars, tending toward fully autonomous vehicles, fully dependent on the latest technology. In light of this, making sure our current vehicles can reliably connect to smartphones and other devices is paramount for the industry prior to venturing into the logistics of total vehicle autonomy.

Stephens said automakers recognize this and are taking a proactive approach toward vehicles and technology, especially related to the consumer.

“Manufacturers are working to keep up—a case in point would be the software upgrades that are now becoming commonplace,” Stephens said. “Another area is at the dealership level. There is this key window of time, where car owners are most receptive to learning what features their cars have, as well as how to use them properly.”

The first 30 days of car ownership are when drivers are most attuned to activating and using new technology, according to Stephens.

“Dealers now are hiring tech-savvy staff to work with car buyers, educating them about the features their cars have, as well as how to use them properly,” Stephens added.

In terms of brands, Lexus again ranked as the most reliable, the fifth consecutive year that’s happened, with a score of 95. Porsche was a close second with 97, up four rank positions from 2015. General Motors’ Buick division was third, at 106, and Toyota finished fourth, with a score of 112.

In addition to receiving the highest score in the overall nameplate ranking, Lexus also garnered three segment awards. The Lexus ES was the most dependable premium model overall, reporting the lowest average number of problems per 100 vehicles, and ranked highest in the Compact Premium Car segment. The Lexus GS was awarded for the Midsize Premium Car segment, and the Lexus GX luxury utility vehicle was awarded among Midsize Premium SUVs, with the Lexus RX coming in second in the category.

At the other end of the dependability spectrum, Dodge ranked the lowest, with 208 problems per 100 vehicles. Ford finished a notch above that at 204. Rounding out the bottom were Smart (199), Land Rover (198) and Jeep (181).

Despite these speed bumps related to technology and consumers, recent enhancements are actually making vehicles safer than ever to drive, as well as ramping up efficiency. Features such as blind-spot monitoring, backing cameras and forward collision warning indicators are no longer only available on high-end luxury models—they are now becoming standard even on the lower-tier models.

Semi-autonomous technologies focused on safety are now in the works, like vehicle-to-vehicle communication (V2V). V2V uses a wireless signal to communicate information about location, speed and direction between vehicles. Currently, MIT engineers are working on V2V algorithms that would determine the best evasive maneuvers a car could take in avoiding an accident.

Since technology now trumps color schemes—one of the prime considerations for consumers and the vehicles they drive—what new technologies are most important to them? According to the 2015 Autotrader In-Vehicle Technology Shopper Influence Study, 65 percent of those surveyed said features like Wi-Fi and streaming music services in their vehicles were must-haves, along with cruise control, diagnostic alerts and USB charging ports.

Indicating the intersection of smartphones and vehicles, 39 percent said they preferred the navigation system on their own devices, rather than the in-vehicle system. This was more than double the percentage of those surveyed in 2014 (19 percent).

While it’s become accepted that younger consumers are most up-to-date and desiring the latest technology gadgets in their cars, they are also especially savvy when it comes to paying for in-vehicle features they don’t think that they need. They are also less brand loyal than their older demographic cohorts.

“I’m finding my customers are increasingly questioning why they should have to pay for some of the in-vehicle technology, when most of it is already available to them via their smartphones,” said Christopher Abrahms owner of Cars for All brokerage, in Burbank, California.

Abrahms is a veteran of the industry dating back to the pre-technology days when cars were more muscle than memory and software. He said dealers have stopped selling cars and are now selling specific features.

“In my work, I can get people exactly what they want, whether they want all the latest technology or not,” Abrahms said. “We’ve gotten to the point where technology is now the driving force in new car manufacturing, with in-vehicle technology a prominent feature in purchasing a vehicle.”

Given Abrahms business, he’s especially bullish on leasing vehicles, since it allows customers to trade up and access the newest and latest technology. On the flipside, if someone ends up with a car that has features that they don’t like, they’re not stuck with it for four or five years, or even longer.

“Technology is moving so rapidly that a year-and-a-half to two years is a lifetime,” Abrahms said. “A feature can now be obsolete in two years.”

On being asked about why Lexus has come to dominate J.D. Power’s VDS, and even Buick’s strong showing over the past two years, Abrahms spoke about the industry’s awareness of consumer needs and being attuned to what they want.

“Manufacturers like Lexus have done a really good job with focus groups and finding out what consumers want, especially inside the car. The brands that top J.D. Power’s study are intent on giving their customers what they want,” he said.

One area that’s much different now than ever before is that changes in vehicle design aren’t being driven by auto manufacturers anymore. Technology upgrades are just as likely coming from non-automotive companies like Google.

It’s not a given among all car people that drivers will eventually and eagerly relinquish autonomy to their self-driving vehicle, as some surmise. Abrahms doesn’t see that happening any time soon.

“Ultimately, we buy cars to drive them. Technology will never replace that experience,” Abrahms said. “The bottom line for most American drivers is they want a car they enjoy driving. Why would you buy a Porsche, if not for the experience of driving it? The experience of driving is part of cultural DNA.” 

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