This year's influential Initial Quality Study (IQS) from J. D. Power was surprising for the poor showing from three of the leading German carmakers. Mercedes-Benz, BMW, and Audi--widely respected as titans of engineering and pioneers in car tech--all suffered a considerable drop in the nameplate rankings, with BMW slipping from 3rd to 28th and Mercedes falling by a similar margin, from 6th to 26th. Audi skidded from 8th place last year to 19th in 2006.
So what was behind this sudden slump? It turns out that this year's IQS factored in a whole new set of data on design flaws, which included the usability of each car's cabin technology. And it will come as little surprise to those who have spent hours wrangling with the iDrive and COMAND (BMW and Mercedes's driver interfaces, respectively) that the results show the integration of many advanced technology systems leaving quite a bit to be desired. In the list of the "most troublesome design failure problems," BMW drivers identified the "difficult to use" and "poorly located" front audio and entertainment system as their number one complaint. Third on their list was the location and usability of the Heating Ventilation Air Conditioning (HVAC) system, with the inability of the voice-recognition system to understand commands and the placement and usability of cup holders rounding out the list of top five gripes. For Mercedes drivers, the top five complaints were excessive brake dust; a poorly located and difficult-to-use clock; poor visibility/usability of HVAC controls; troublesome cruise-control systems; and issues with usability and lack of accurate information of the navigation system. In previous IQS studies, which focused mainly on engineering defects and malfunctions, most of these complaints would not have registered.
The German trio was not alone in drawing criticism for poorly integrated cabin tech. Lexus drivers, for example, identified their car's navigation systems, hands-free calling, and HVAC controls in their top five design defects. However, the number of design complaints per hundred vehicles for Lexus was so low that the luxury Japanese manufacturer suffered only the smallest of drops--from first overall in 2005 to second this year. With BMW and Mercedes, it was the relatively high volume of complaints that resulted in their dramatic falls from grace. For example, under the new reporting system, BMW racked up 142 defects per 100 cars this year, compared with just 95 a year ago.
According to Neal Oddes, director of product research and analysis at J. D. Power, it is not technology per se that generates new problems, but rather its integration and execution. Oddes also points out that the nameplate ranking is an overall assessment that applies to the whole range of a carmaker's models, many of which are not equipped with the latest technology interfaces. However, the message to the designers is clear: If you're going to install technology to make drivers' lives easier, start by making it easy to use.