Auto Tech

The worst in-car tech and convenience features

From infotainment nuances to major controls, these are the in-car features that irritate us most.

BMW

Cars are getting smarter by the day. With more and more convenience and tech features finding their way into new cars, automakers are constantly finding ways to make our lives behind the wheel easier. Mostly.

Sometimes, automakers find solutions to problems that don't exist, or think of unnecessary ways to reinvent the wheel. To that end, here are the in-car features and technologies we hate most.

Voice controls

A $30 Alexa speaker has great voice recognition. Why doesn't a $30,000 car?

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Awful voice recognition

Of all the ways that interfacing with digital devices has progressed over the past five years, and there are truly a lot of ways, voice recognition is one of the most striking. Not only are systems like Alexa and Google Assistant incredibly good, but they seem to get better and better every day. Despite all this power in a speaker available for less than $30, the vast majority of cars out there are stuck with voice recognition systems more likely to spike your blood pressure than find the nearest Starbucks.

Voice recognition works best when you can just talk normally and the system figures it out. Voice recognition is literally the worst when you yourself need to learn a new way of speaking to make the system understand you. Plenty of cars on the road require that you pause between city, state and street names, all of which must be spoken in the right sequence, all intoned precisely lest you confuse the poor, stupid thing. Meanwhile, over on Android Auto you can just say, "Take me to the airport" and let the system figure it out.

To be fair, there are a few reasons for this. Even on new cars, the infotainment systems nestled down in their dashboards were finalized years ago. Given how quickly voice recognition is progressing that's a really, really long time. Beyond that, most cars try to do all the voice recognition onboard, whereas systems like Amazon's Alexa just beam your voice over the internet to some server farm to figure out what you said. In other words, they have a lot more horsepower to play with. Thankfully, Mercedes-Benz and others are increasingly taking this approach, meaning talking to your car is getting a major upgrade.

-- Tim Stevens

When you put a Toyota Prius in reverse, it starts beeping inside the car.

Nick Miotke/Roadshow

Audible backup beeping

Let me be clear: I'm not talking about the soft "bong" that electric cars make when they're in reverse, to let pedestrians know the car is backing up. I'm referring to cars that offer a constant, audible beep inside the car.

It happened recently in a 2019 Lexus LC 500. After I moved the convoluted electronic gearshift (more on that later) to reverse, the car beeped the entire time I backed up. Combined with the different-pitch beeps from the electronic parking sensors, it made for one of the most unpleasant sensory experiences I've had lately.

I know I'm in reverse. I had to move the stupid shifter to the left and up just to get there. I didn't put it there by accident. As far as I can tell, this "feature" is only limited to Toyota/Lexus vehicles at the moment. Here's hoping no other carmakers will adopt this useless annoyance.

-- Steven Ewing

Some carmakers charge a fee to use smartphone mirroring tech, while other companies offer it for free.

Manuel Carrillo III/Roadshow

Charging extra to use my own tech

These days, Android Auto or Apple CarPlay connectivity comes standard on most of our favorite affordable vehicles, so it's annoying when a luxury automaker expects buyers to pay extra for the privilege. I shouldn't have to plunk down an extra $300 on a fully loaded Mercedes-Benz to get what's free with a base-level Kia or Volkswagen. Fortunately, more and more automakers are starting to see things my way.

That BMW flatly refuses to offer Android Auto connectivity is one thing, but expecting its buyers to pay an annual subscription for Apple CarPlay is an even bigger slap in the face. CarPlay is powered by the connected iPhone and uses the phone's own data plan for any map downloads and audio streaming the customer might need. What is BMW even doing to justify the $80 annual cost?

BMW is basically asking for an annual fee to flip a digital switch connecting the car you've already paid for with the phone and data plan that you already own. Maybe there's more happening under the hood, but Hyundai, Honda and dozens of other automakers have somehow figured it out without bothering their customers with recurring charges. BMW's "subscription" sounds more like ransomware to me.

-- Antuan Goodwin

BMW gesture controls

In modern BMWs, you can wave and twirl your finger in front of the infotainment screen to control various functions.

BMW

Gesture controls

We all know that taking your hands off the wheel while driving is a bad idea. So it only follows that taking them off the wheel to make silly gestures in midair while driving is also a bad idea. Nonetheless, several luxury automakers are adding gesture controls to their cars.

Almost all new cars have steering wheel controls for adjusting the media volume, changing tracks, answering or hanging up phone calls and so on. They can all be used with hands firmly at 9 and 3 on the wheel. But gesture controls ignore those convenient buttons and instead recommend you flail your hands about in front of the car's infotainment screen.

Not only is it hard to understand when you'd use gesture controls -- besides a "gee-whiz" show-off moment when you buy a new car --they're also hard to use. Sometimes I've set off the controls accidentally. Other times I haven't been able to get the car to recognize the gestures I'm making. All told, I can happily live without in-car gesturing -- unless, I suppose, it's to express my frustration at another motorist's poor driving.

-- Jake Holmes

The Chevy Bolt EV's electronic shifter is unnecessarily complex.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Convoluted electronic shifters

I'm all for "secret handshakes" -- hidden little tricks and surprises that only those truly familiar with an automobile know. But my enthusiasm for such things erodes when it comes to impediments to basic car operation, especially when it impacts safety. The auto industry's obsession with electronic gearshift selectors often grates on my nerves for exactly this reason.

I get that e-shifters are more compact and free up valuable center console or dashboard real estate that can be used for other things. But some automakers do this far more intuitively and safely than others. Gearshifts work best when they're unobtrusive and don't require glancing down to decipher them. Even though motorists generally get accustomed to unergonomic e-shifter interfaces over time, should they really have to?

The unit in Chevrolet's otherwise excellent Bolt EV and some of GM's other products is a prime example of how not execute such a shifter. Its operation is counterintuitive enough that I've actually witnessed multiple trained auto shop employees struggle to figure out how to shift into reverse. It shouldn't be that hard -- the PRNDL wasn't broken, but some automakers have insisted upon making shifter operations far more difficult so that they can have an impressive-looking feature to woo shoppers in showrooms.

-- Chris Paukert

Your car has automatic headlights. Why wouldn't that be the default setting?

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Headlight controls where 'auto' isn't the default

If your car has automatic headlights, it should default to that setting. A stalk where "auto" is an option, but not the default option, only seeks to make driving more dangerous for drivers and everyone around them.

Daytime running lights are getting brighter, and with even more light in the cabin thanks to always-on screens, it's getting harder and harder to tell when headlights are actually on.

Driving at night without headlights, even if the DRLs are activated, is a grossly unsafe practice, and I think it can be remedied by automakers stopping and thinking for an extra half-second before forcing drivers to choose to turn on headlights that they thought, however incorrectly, were constantly "automatic."

-- Andrew Krok

Cheap HUD displays project small bits of information onto a flip-up screen.

Antuan Goodwin/Roadshow

Cheap HUD displays

I'm all about that head-up display (HUD) life. I love being able to keep my eyes on the road while still seeing my speed readout and other information hovering just above and forward of the car's nose. Unfortunately, not all HUDs are created equal.

Most of the time, a head-up display is recessed several inches below the surface of a vehicle's dash panel. These types of HUDs are great because they project an image onto the windshield that drivers of most sizes can see, per their respective adjustments. But then there's the budget version of the HUD, and it's not so great.

Called the "combiner" HUD, these displays are nowhere near as adjustable. They're fine for shorter folks, but if you're taller than 5 foot, 9 inches, the image begins to fall so low that it defeats the HUD's purpose. In fairness, the "CHUD" (as Roadshow calls it) takes up much less space in the dash and doesn't require an expensive windshield -- which could be pocket-book pain in the event of a stone chip. But having a fussy, idiotic-looking plastic disc sticking out of the dash simply screams that a car is trying too hard to write a tech check it can't cash. Ultimately, CHUDs represent cost-cutting more than they represent making a driver's life easier.

-- Manuel Carrillo III

drive-mode-001

If an owner can set an individual drive mode, why not default to that every time?

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Cars that don't remember your settings

While I loved driving our long-term Kia Stinger, the car didn't really come alive unless it was in Sport mode. Unfortunately, the Stinger reset itself to Normal mode every time I turned it off. It's a little thing, but I wish cars would remember which mode I liked. Fortunately the Stinger has a physical button for drive modes, so it's easy to switch to Sport. In other cars, it's not always a simple process.

Take the Ford Mustang Bullitt, for example, which has a sweet-sounding sport exhaust. If I want to hear it every time, I have to press a button on the steering wheel and then scroll through a few menus in order to turn it on.

If it's my car, and I'm the only one driving it, why not just keep the setting where I had it last? With modern algorithms, this shouldn't be too hard.

-- Emme Hall

Lexus' Remote Touch infotainment controller is one of the worst out there.

Jon Wong/Roadshow

Non-touchscreen infotainment controls

It's 2019; being forced to use a crappy knob or joystick to make selections is unacceptable. Touchscreens are becoming more prevalent, but some brands insist on using a joystick or touchpad with weird haptic feedback. It's unintuitive and distracting.

It also seems like a step backward to include a bunch of extra physical hardware in a car, when from a component cost standpoint, a touchscreen would almost certainly be cheaper and makes for a cleaner interior layout.

I know some people disagree, and I don't expect these controls to go away anytime soon. Toyota and Lexus remain the biggest offenders in the category, but even they offer relatively simple touchscreen setups in some cars.

-- Kyle Hyatt

Backup camera

Now that backup cameras are standard, it's time to critique them.

Andrew Krok/Roadshow

Low-resolution backup cameras

Backup cameras are hardly a new thing -- in fact, they're now federally mandated on all new cars. So there's really no excuse for a low-resolution camera these days. There's absolutely no reason the view from the camera in the Wong family's 2004 Acura MDX should be of comparable quality to ones found in some new cars today.

The brand-new Nissan Altima immediately springs to mind, with its backup camera that's grainy in the daytime and even worse at night. The camera in the Lincoln Nautilus Black Label also isn't stellar and certainly isn't up to snuff for a vehicle that carries a near-$70,000 price tag.

The fact that something like the $16,000 Kia Rio has a crystal-clear backup camera makes matters worse for the Altima and the Nautilus. If an entry-level sedan can do this right, you would think a high-volume midsize sedan or anything wearing a luxury badge would, too. 

-- Jon Wong