Consumer Panel from Detroit: Opinionated baby-boomers rule the automotive marketplace

Consumer Panel from Detroit: Opinionated baby-boomers rule the automotive marketplace


If ours was truly a just world, at least as far as infotainment systems went, only young people would get to buy new cars. The reasons are obvious. Young people are, after all, about the only ones actually capable of fully appreciating what's now being offered within the wireless automotive space. Young people possess the enthusiasm for the new hardware and the requisite mental bandwidth for operating them. They're also expert at driving while punching addresses into navigation systems at the same that they're updating their Facebook status. Having spent their entire lives with computers, mobile phones and video games, they are unintimidated by anything digital or wireless. Automotive infotainment systems were designed with them in mind, so by rights, the new cars should go to them and no one else. What a wonderful world it would be if it were really like this. But alas, it's not.

Instead, new cars mostly get purchased by an older demographic that views in-vehicle infotainment as more of a distraction than anything else, since to them, it does what their smartphones do, only not as well and at a much slower speed. Most go into automobile showrooms ruminating about leather seats and interior trim and never thinking at all about whether or not the telematics setup is something they'll be comfortable using. But even though many are currently bewildered and put off by infotainment systems, if the reactions of a recent survey is any indication, give them the right vehicle, with the right telematics fitment, and they'll immerse themselves into it almost as fast as any twenty-year-old. And just as fast, it turns out, they'll demonstrate very strong opinions on exactly what should and should not be on their dashboards.

Consumer research firm Morplace Inc surveyed several thousand drivers on their infotainment preferences, followed by a focus group of half a dozen experienced drivers whom they asked to spend an hour or so driving different new car models and trying out their onboard infotainment systems.  Although they were tech-savvy enough that their smartphones had numerous apps installed on them, most had not used their own in-car infotainment systems at all prior to this.

The drivers were given a scenario; that they had just bought the car and wanted to meet up with their imaginary friend Darren for a pizza. They were to perform a number of routine tasks using the car's onboard system, such as finding a restaurant, a gas station, a radio station that played Justin Beiber, and then finding a different station, and after re-contacting Darren, calling it a day and plotting a course home.

Keeping Your Eyes on the Road

Of all the cars and infotainment fitments they tested, the one they unanimously loved was the Tesla. The Tesla was fast, the screen was very large, so the visibility was there,” reported Mark, who normally drives a BMW Series 4. “There is another LCD in the instrument panel, so you didn't have to take your eyes far off the road. So I will say that I felt mostly safe in that car.”  By comparison, he noted that in other cars, “you had to use an app to actually use letters and numbers,” and it got so confusing trying to use it, that he ended up getting lost and not feeling safe. The drivers that tried out the Honda's infotainment suite gave it low marks. “It just absolutely infuriated me,” said James. “It was like they forgot that there was somebody that had to use the system. It was simplified past the point of being familiar to the point where it felt like it was good for somebody who engineered the system, but the driver was completely left out of the loop.”

Often the panel drivers would get frustrated by the in-car navigation systems and ended up completing the task using their phones or even pulling over. The reasons were that the in-car system was simply too complex. Another reason they preferred their phones was that the in-car system's navigational database turned out to be “frozen in time” from when the car was purchased and the latest restaurants could not be found. What most of them love is the Google Search app they have on their phones. “Google Search has mastered the 'second step,' by not giving you ten steps”, remarked one panelist. “With in-car systems you have to sit and wait as it goes through twenty-seven different options that have nothing to do with what you were initially searching for. Google has done a great job eliminating the extraneous and delivering the 'meat and potatoes.' Having Google Search in a car would be really desirable.” One of the big problems with in-car navigation systems is their speed.  Drivers who use phone apps are used to a quick response. In-car systems tend to be slower to start the search process.

Many of the panelists mentioned the difficulties using voice recognition software. It was not always intuitive and often presented the drivers with long menus followed by options that were irrelevant to the task at hand.  Another problem was that some systems required the driver to use specific system vocabulary, which they did not necessarily feel inclined to adopt. Several mentioned they would like the system to be adaptable to their own language.

Wifi in the Car: Worth the Money?

Drivers would love it if their in-car systems could go online the same as their phones. Several who travel a lot on business said they would love it if, instead of having to go to a Starbucks or some other place with a hotspot, they could pull off the highway somewhere, take out their laptops and just go to work.

The problem is, of course, that none of them want to have to pay for it. The consensus was that one more monthly bill to a phone company was too much, especially if it was for more than five or ten dollars. Most felt that in-vehicle internet service should be included in the car's purchase price, unless they were on a road trip with children in the back seat. In that case, almost no price would be too high for keeping them occupied online with their tablets and not screaming with boredom. For this, they think the service providers should be able to come up with a 'just in case' option for such contingencies.

Similarly, drivers were opposed to paying a monthly subscription fee for their music fix to Sirius XM Satellite, preferring instead nearly-free services like Pandora.

Social Media in the Car: Fun or Menace?

Most of the panel felt very strongly against having Facebook and other social media in their car. They considered it a distraction whose marginal benefits were far outweighed by the inherent risk of reckless behavior. At least one acknowledged yielding to its temptation at stoplights, which only reinforced his strong feelings against it. Several said they would never buy a car that had it aboard and would particularly not buy a car for their children or grandchildren that was so equipped. Some even called for the developers to assume responsibility and not market them to younger drivers. The single opposing voice within the panel was a man who traveled a lot on business and found that Facebook was the single-best way to let his office and clients know of his whereabouts.

Don't Let Your Phone Run Your Car

Many liked the idea of ‘pairing’ smartphones with in-vehicle infotainment systems. Smartphones almost always represent the latest wireless technology, while their in-vehicle counterparts are already several years old by the time they appear in automobile showrooms. The big concern is that the in-vehicle system not be too dependent on the smartphone. The reason is that even the best iPhone or Android system has bugs and glitches in it and the patches developed for them don't always integrate perfectly with automobile informatics, so if something were to go wrong with the phone, the in-car infotainment suite would have to be able to perform independently of it. The phone must not be able to disable the car.

On, Beyond the iPhone

While most drivers seem to be attached to their phones and feel that they perform all the tasks they need too well for them to even consider exploring what the in-car system might do for them, once they are exposed to a good system and forced to engage with it, they find there are plenty of benefits to it and they end up using it more in their own cars. The challenge is getting them to put their phones down long enough so the car dealer can show them what the infotainment system can do. After completing the test drive using automotive telematics, many of the panelists said the experience had changed them and that when the time came to buy a new car or upgrade their systems, it would definitely be one of the factors playing in their buying decision. But at least one admitted they'd already gone out and bought certain add-on systems after seeing what they could do. Most said they had Teslas’ on their dream list.

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