DETROIT -- Drivers are tiring of auto makers embedding apps into their cars - the main complaint being that they only want essential apps that work as well as those on their smartphones, according to new research.
The research, presented by automotive market research firm SBD, was buttressed by a focus group organized by the Telematics Detroit conference here this week.
The focus group was made up of six drivers, identified by first name only, who participated in a panel discussion. The drivers overwhelmingly chose two functions that they wanted in a car's infotainment system -- navigation and music. Everything else was seen as either a convenience or a dangerous distraction.
The Tesla infotainment system was popular among test users in a focus group at Telematics Detroit. (Photo: Lucas Mearian/Computerworld)
Each driver was given an hour to experiment with six car infotainment systems from each of the leading car manufacturers plus Tesla Motors, the electric car maker.
"Music and where am I going. Everything else is about driving. Safety... that's what I'm most concerned with," said Megan, one of the panelists. "All this other stuff seams OK, but it's very distracting."
Having Google Search embedded in a car topped the list of features the drivers said they wanted because it was fast, intuitive and worked every time.
"There's just so many things you can do with it," said Neal, another panelist. "The information is instant. There's no lag time. And, it saves so much time."
Neal said he likes using Google Search and navigation on his smartphone over his car's telematics system because the car always takes longer to find a location and often offers 10 or more search results that aren't related to the desired destination.
The second most popular app the drivers wanted was Pandora, the Internet radio and music streaming service. Most complained that the SiriusXM radio offered with the new car offered stations with repetitive music playlists. Pandora, on the other hand, learns a user's preferences or allows them to be customized while still offering an endless variety of music, the drivers said.
"Does Pandora run for free in cars?" Neal asked. "I'd love to have Pandora, but I don't want to pay a premium to have it stream into the car. I have a phone I can use for that."
Andrew Hart, head of advanced research for SBD, said auto makers choose the wrong apps to embed in their cars because in the rush to catch up with smartphones and tablets, they forget about usability and responsiveness.
Today, there are 173 apps developed by automotive manufacturers and embedded in cars in the U.S., according to Hart.
SBD completed a study of seven "high-profile" onboard navigation and infotainment systems from Renault, Audi, Opel, Mercedes-Benz, Toyota, BMW and Citroen. Renault came in first place for usability, followed by Audi, Opel and Mercedes-Benz. Toyota, BMW and Citroen rounded out the bottom three cars.
In a survey involving 46 of those car owners, the drivers were able to complete simple tasks on the infotainment systems 40% of the time. The remaining 60% "got lost while navigating through the maze of different features."
Hart said the study revealed there are four categories of car infotainment systems. They are: Systems that provide both embedded and mobile apps; systems with apps that typically don't work well or fast enough to be used by drivers; systems with apps that are difficult to use; and systems with apps that distract and create safety issues.
"As an industry we're striving to develop Swiss army knives, instead of the spoons our customers want," Hart said.
Even car dealers struggle to explain to new car owners how infotainment systems work, Hart said. "There are too many complexities. And if we can't educate the dealers, we definitely can't educate the consumer."
Tesla, which used a Linux-based OS for its infotainment system, ranked high in usability with drivers.
Those on the user panel said the Tesla infotainment system was the easiest and "most intuitive" to use.
"We were very enamored with the Tesla. Not being tech savvy, I found the icons were huge and easy to use while driving and while parked," said Tina, another focus group member. "It was a fascinating system to me, and I'd seek that one out [as a car buyer]."
As for Wi-Fi in the car, the panel of drivers had mixed feelings. Some lauded the ability to work from the car or stream live entertainment for passengers, while others felt being connected "24 hours a day" wasn't necessary.
The focus group also had mixed feelings about in-car infotainment platforms that allow drivers to sync or pair their smartphones. Some liked the idea of having the most up-to-date technology and apps available through on-board telematics, while said it pigeon-holed them.
Ford Motor Co., the first manufacturer to offer in-car apps via the smartphone with its SYNC AppLink, offers apps from the iTunes App Store, Google Play or BlackBerry App World to be downloaded into the car's head unit, for example.
AppLink started out with a few radio and location-based services, but has expanded to dozens of such services. Earlier this year, Ford announced four more integrations: Parkopedia, a parking space finder; Parkmobile, an app that allows drivers to use their smartphones to pay for parking; Pulse, an ADT security app; and a Domino's Pizza ordering app.
MirrorLink, a service that provides connectivity between a smartphone and a car's infotainment system, is also being adopted by many auto manufacturers. Additionally, Apple's CarPlay and Google's Automotive Link allow smartphone pairing with car infotainment systems.
"I like that idea," said Neal. "You're personalizing it. My phone will always be as up-to-date as possible."
Neal said he'd just downloaded an app called "Find My Car," that can locate his parked vehicle using GPS. "There are so many features on your phone that you can't build into a car," Neal added.
Conversely, some in the focus group noted that smartphones can be lost, leaving a driver without a navigation system. They said cars should always have an embedded app for navigation.
Since smartphones are replaced every two years or so, and that could require a complete reconfiguration of an infotainment system to be able to use the new apps.
"To me, [Apple's] iOS 7 is not as good as the last iOS, so that lowered my confidence in how well the software is working. If iOS 8 is as bad as iOS 7, I may want to migrate to Android. Then you have to migrate your car to Android," Mark said.
Lucas Mearian covers consumer data storage, consumerization of IT, mobile device management, renewable energy, telematics/car tech and entertainment tech for Computerworld. Follow Lucas on Twitter at @lucasmearian or subscribe to Lucas's RSS feed. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
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