The Worst Automotive Technology
There are a great many technology features that we've grown to love. Others show promise, but aren't executed particularly well. The next ten technologies became frustrations during our time with them. Some of the worst can be attributed to software, rather than design issues. Regardless, we either hope to see them evolve for the next generation or disappear altogether.
Honda/Acura Dual-Screen Infotainment System
Honda makes great powertrains. Its 3.5 L Earth Dreams V6 and accompanying six-speed automatic transmission work phenomenally well together. But its dual-screen infotainment system is not as refined, unfortunately. The Honda Accord, Crosstour, Acura RLX, and MDX employ a high-mounted intelligent Multi-Information Display (i-MID) and a smaller touchscreen below for the models with navigation.
When I first came across the system at Mudfest 2013, I wondered why the company would use two LCDs for infotainment. Honda's rep assured me the interplay would make sense once I used it. So, I scheduled some time with a 2013 Honda Accord Touring and Acura RLX to try for myself. And sure, the combination works, but I still don't see a need for two displays.
Of course, the idea is that you can have two different tasks on-screen, depending on whether you want to use Pandora, USB input, or just FM radio. But then you have to control them. There are two outputs capable of the same thing. However, if you have navigation on the i-MID display, the touchscreen still shows your radio controls (unless you are trying to enter an address, which also requires input from the control knob). It's just more complicated than it needs to be. A good touchscreen or pure control knob-based interface is more effective.
Acura's implementation in the RLX and MDX is slightly better thanks to its capacitive touchscreen with haptic feedback. The Accord's screen is resistive, and not as responsive. We hope Honda ditches its system and comes up with a more intuitive successor.
Hyundai Equus Rear Entertainment System
Rear-seat entertainment systems seem to be on a road to extinction, given the popularity of affordable tablets. But that doesn’t stop automakers from offering them as an expensive option. Hyundai gets the dubious distinction of creating an annoying system for its 2014 Equus Ultimate.
While it does expose twin 9.2-inch displays to each of the rear passengers, the system also forces everyone in the car to listen to whatever's playing. That seems like an odd oversight; most rear-seat solutions include support for wireless (or at least wired) headphones, freeing passengers to watch whatever they want while the front seat enjoys something else.
Hyundai’s implementation in the Equus doesn't reflect the car's almost $70,000 price tag. Look to Audi's A8L or Acura's MDX for an example of rear-seat entertainment done right.
Complete LCD Gauge Clusters
I've noticed a trend in luxury vehicles of replacing analog gauges with an LCD-based cluster. Lexus and Volvo do an excellent job with theirs. But Jaguar, Land Rover, Hyundai, and Cadillac fail miserably.
To begin, they all use a 12.3-inch display. They're completely two-dimensional. In comparison, Lexus and Volvo employ ring elements to give the screen some depth. Cadillac gets bonus points for offering different themes, but ultimately gets caught trying to replicate the analog needle and doing a poorer job than the technology getting replaced. And at night, you can see the LCD's backlight bleeding out, even at its dimmest setting. When there's a lot of dark content on-screen, that's pretty annoying.
LCD gauge clusters look great when Nvidia is demonstrating its Tegra K1-powered development board. But they're difficult to pull off well in practice. We're going to see a lot more of this technology in the future. For now, though, a number of companies are struggling to get the aesthetic aspect right.
Capacitive Touch Buttons
Cadillac, Lincoln, and Ford like to use capacitive touch buttons in their vehicles. But I hate them. Although they look cool on the center stack, manipulating them as you drive can be downright dangerous. Physical buttons give you a sense of feedback. You can blindly feel around for them as you navigate traffic. That's not as easy with a flat panel requiring a precise touch in the right spot. Haptic feedback helps, but it's not a substitute for switches and knobs.
My biggest problem with capacitive touch is figuring out where to press. Cadillac CUE is especially problematic for me. Do I touch the flat area? The silver raised areas below? Or both? Ultimately, I end up pressing around until something happens.
So please, Cadillac, Ford, and any other company experimenting with capacitive touch buttons: don't do it. There's nothing wrong with physical switches and their reassuring clicks.
Jaguar And Land Rover Infotainment System
Jaguar and Land Rover employ the same touchscreen infotainment system across all of their models. My problem is that it employs a purely touch-based interface. These are cars that sell for more than $50,000 and easily creep up above $100,000, armed with technology bested by sub-$20,000 Ford Fiestas. The displays look nice, sure. But the graphical elements are dated. I'm not talking as bad as Subaru here, but at the price you pay, the JLR system lags behind what you get from German and Japanese automakers.
I'd expect a touch-only system from more mainstream offerings, if only because they help save cost. But when you want to compete in the luxury space, physical control is important. BMW has iDrive. Mercedes has its COMAND knob, and Audi has the MMI with touchpad for handwriting recognition. It’s a shame the JLR infotainment system trails so far back, especially since there are so many otherwise-stunning cars with the platform inside.
Mazda 6 And CX-5 Infotainment Lock-Outs
Trying to use your phone or type an address into the navigation takes your focus away from the road, and you already know you shouldn't fiddle with those subsystems mid-trip. Most auto manufacturers create lock-outs to ensure you don't run afoul of distracted driving laws. I consider that a minor inconvenience in the name of safety.
But Mazda managed to take an annoyance and turn it into a major pain. You see, the Mazda 6 and CX5 employ an infotainment system armed with TomTom's navigation software, which locks you out while the vehicle is moving. Fair enough. If you're at a long red light and need to look for an address, you can type right up until a green light lets you go. But whereas most solutions lock the keyboard until you stop again, Mazda boots you back to the main menu, forcing you to start your search over again. At a certain point, it's easier to have your passenger look the address up on your phone instead.
Given the always-updated nature of online maps, I'd expect more folks to go straight to their phones, rather than bothering with an intrusive lock-out mechanism. That's not good news; it suggests an increasing number of drivers could be demonstrating unsafe behavior. I'd much rather see the infotainment system become easier to use when it's appropriate.
Charging Station POIs
We're intrigued by electric cars. But the charging infrastructure remains sparse outside of major metropolitan areas. My first experience was with Chevy's Volt, which goes for about 40 miles on electricity before its engine kicks in as a generator. If you're close to home, it's easy enough to plug in and charge the car's batteries. But if you take it out of town, charging stations aren't always easy to find. By now you'd assume that navigation systems would include these as points of interest. But the 2013 Volt didn't.
The Ford C-MAX Hybrid Energi, which lasts for 20 miles on electricity, does feature charging station POIs. However, Ford’s database is full of Nissan dealerships (well-played, Nissan), and includes nothing from ChargePoint or Blink.
Nissan's Leaf is slightly better, including those two charging networks in its listing of stations. Nissan even uses crowdsourcing to let owners add stations that don't appear automatically. And that's when the situation takes a turn toward obnoxious. I discovered that the Nissan POIs are not particularly accurate. I was guided into neighborhoods and parking lots because someone thought it'd be cute to call random pairs of 120 V outlets charging stations.
GM Lambda Crossovers With Separate Keys And Fobs
Crossovers based on GM’s Lambda platform have been available since the 2007 model year branded as Saturn, GMC, Buick, Chevy. They received updates back in 2012 and 2013. However, the manufacturer still uses separate keys and fobs for entry and ignition.
These are not cheap vehicles. The most affordable Lambda-based crossover is Chevy's Traverse, which starts at $30,795. It should have a switchblade key, at the very least. As if to mock the absurdity of this, GM includes a switchblade key with the Chevy Spark, a sub-compact that starts at $12,170.
BMW And Mini Back-Up Camera Prices
To say that BMW and Mini will nickel-and-dime you for options is an understatement. While some manufacturers include backup cameras as standard equipment, BMW charges for the privilege. Take the BMW 3-series, for example. Regardless of whether you go with the base 320i for $32,750 or the 335i xDrive at $45,500, the backup camera is still an add-on. Cost varies depending on the package you pay for, but it's not like the camera requires an upgrade to navigation for the LCD display or anything. BMW's entry-level 320i already has the necessary screen for its infotainment system. Stepping up to the more expensive 5-series only changes the top trim levels.
Backup cameras as an option seem ludicrous, especially since they'll be required on all vehicles once the NHTSA stops delaying the Cameron Gulbransen Kids Transportation Safety Act.
Mini faces our same criticism for charging if you want a backup camera, even if you're already paying for the expensive navigation upgrade.