I’m trying, really trying, to get with the program and give up on CDs as in-car entertainment. Bad CDs. Go away. The kids want vinyl at home, and in the car they want to plug in to their devices. I get all of that. CDs are the new 78s.
But if that’s the new order, the automakers need to give us a smooth transition. If my test cars seamlessly accepted my media—Bluetooth, iPods and hard drives connected via USB—I’d give up without a struggle. But the process is aggravating by any measure. I thought we’d seen the last of spinning hourglasses and “Please Wait” messages.
J.D. Power recognizes the problem:
New-vehicle buyers report that audio, communication, entertainment, and navigation systems are the primary source of problems with their cars, trucks, SUVs, and vans. Built-in voice recognition and Bluetooth connectivity are the two most frequently cited problems with new vehicles. “Voice recognition and device connectivity are often inherent to the technology design and cannot be fixed at the dealership, creating a high level of angst among new-vehicle owners,” said Mike VanNieuwkuyk, executive director of global automotive at J.D. Power.
With so many features, the learning curve can be steep. Wards Auto says, “Automakers want dealerships to give customer tutorials on all the technology features on a car. But that’s expecting a lot, says Steven Szakaly, chief economist for the National Automobile Dealers Association. Dealers are the go-to people for customers with automotive technology questions, he says. ‘We deal with it every day. No one drives their cars back to Detroit to ask how something works.’”
Of course, that’s assuming the tech actually works when you do understand it. I don’t mean to pick on the $28,370 2018 Mazda3 Grand Touring with Bose nine-speaker Centerpoint Audio, but that’s the test car I have now. Here are a few complaints:
Don’t Touch That Dial. There’s no tuning knob, which is distracting. Instead, I have to choose a band (FM, AM or XM), then use the all-purpose knob to scroll down through available stations (after first refreshing the list). Once I find one, I have to go to a whole new menu to save it.
Wait Times. I thought when radio went from tubes to transistors we were in the era of “instant on.” But when I fire up the Mazda3 it can take an entire minute before the radio starts emitting sound. Similarly, if your day starts with backing up—as mine does—the radio functions are disabled when the rear camera is on. You’re stuck with whatever was dialed in the previous night.
Lack of Recognition. I own a completely stock iPod, the 160-gig model—ancient, I know. I plugged it into the Mazda3, and it recognized an Apple device, but told me it contained “No Playable Files.” Really? I thought it was full of thousands of songs! Equally aggravating was the system’s complete failure to recognize my 1T WD hard drive. I believe that’s a fairly modern device.
Hands Free? I’ve never, ever encountered a voice recognition system that, well, recognized what I was trying to tell it. They’re hopeless at finding songs. Supposedly, we’ve reached the point where “natural speech” is sufficient, so you don’t have to know the precise commands that are specific to the car, but it mostly doesn’t work for me. OK, by some miracle it actually did work in the video below. Take a look.
The Mazda’s Bluetooth works fine for accessing my phone's music, but I’ve got way more tunes on the iPod and hard drive, and the point is these systems are supposed to be compatible with such devices.
On other cars, I routinely experience the iPod connecting, only to have it disconnect after one song, or freeze up in mid-song. With large hard drives, there’s frequently an indexing issue—too many songs, the engineers tell me.
I don’t ask for much, I really don’t. I just want the music to play. I don’t need 1,000 watts, 24 speakers, and fancy graphics displaying the album cover and the artist’s biography. I think I’m playing by the rules, but the systems are fighting me.
On my old Saab 900, I have a system that’s like a wind-up Victrola today—a trunk-mounted six-CD changer. And you know what? I love it. I just stack a bunch of music in there and I’m good for, I dunno, a week? My Miata has a plain-jane single-CD player, but it works just fine. It’s just non-aggravating to use.
I do understand that if I lived with test cars for longer than a week I’d learn their quirks and the process wouldn’t be as aggravating. I think I know how to put radio stations into the favorites list on the Mazda now. But a simple tuning knob would be nice.
And remember those old preset station buttons? You dialed the station, pulled them out, then pushed them in again. And your radio station was available there forever. Here's the video, showing that voice recognition actually does work sometimes. Maybe there's hope for the future of infotainment: