2016 Cars: More Tech, More Trouble?

The newest vehicles are making inroads toward a driverless, fully connected experience behind the wheel, but that could introduce a new set of problems for motorists.

December 1, 2015

With some of the connected car features automakers are coming up with, there’s no driving smartphones out of our lives. Chevrolet is rolling out both Google’s Android Auto and Apple’s new CarPlay on 14 of its 2016 models. That’s on top of the 4G LTE and Wi-Fi technology that the maker is adding to much of its lineup.

“For most of us, smartphones are essential,” explains General Motors CEO Mary Barra. Just consider the numbers: According to research by Strategy Analytics, there are 2.3 billion smartphones in use around the world. And a separate study by J.D. Power found that a growing number of buyers — especially among Generation X and millennials — are as influenced by a vehicle’s tech features as they are by conventional factors such as design, performance, and fuel economy.

Today’s cars have become technological showcases, with more computer processors than all but the most advanced homes and offices.

Some observers may question the logic of adding even more smartphone features to a vehicle, considering that distracted driving is blamed by federal regulators for about 11 percent of automotive accidents. But industry officials contend that systems like CarPlay and Android Auto can actually improve safety by getting motorists to stop looking at their smartphone screens, using the text-to-voice feature instead.

The new 2016 BMW 7-Series goes one better, offering buyers the world’s first automotive gesture-control system. Rotate your right hand in one direction to turn the audio system’s volume up, the other way to turn it down. You can also take or reject a phone call and program another gesture to perform a function of your choice.

The 7-Series adds a wide range of high-tech safety features, including one system that will keep you from inadvertently drifting out of your lane. But Tesla is going a step further with its AutoPilot system, which allows you to drive hands-free on a well-marked, limited-access highway. Autonomous cars will be the norm rather than the exception within the next few decades, predicts Tesla CEO Elon Musk. Driving a conventional vehicle will be about as efficient, he adds, “as owning a horse.”

Nissan CEO Carlos Ghosn promises to have a fully self-driving car — one capable of negotiating crowded city streets as well as freeways — by 2020. But Google just might beat him to it. The Silicon Valley company is already rolling out a pilot fleet of bubble-shaped “Google Cars” and is looking for an automaker to partner with to put its autonomous system into production.

The technology could lead to an era of virtually zero highway deaths, suggests Mark Rosekind, administrator of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration. Proponents also believe autonomous vehicles could cut traffic tie-ups by allowing more cars to squeeze safely and smoothly onto crowded streets.

The quality of today’s cars is better than ever as a whole. Traditional mechanical problems, such as a faulty engine or transmission, have all but vanished. But future technology could bring a new round of headaches having to do with those fancy infotainment systems.

“Automakers are trying to give consumers the new features and technology they want without introducing additional quality problems into their vehicles,” said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. “However, almost all automakers are struggling to do this flawlessly, with some consumers indicating that the technology is hard to understand or difficult to use, or simply does not always work as designed.”

In many cases, these systems actually do what they’re supposed to, but they can be overwhelming for folks who have enough trouble programming the clock on the old VHS videotape recorders they still have. That’s why several automakers now make a point of scheduling appointments with customers soon after they buy a new car. It gives them a chance to go over those fancy navigation systems and explain a few of the tricks to make them work.

Paul A. Eisenstein is publisher of The Detroit Bureau. He has more than 30 years of experience covering the auto industry for a broad range of print, broadcast, and electronic media.