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J.D. Power surveyed 1,010 drivers of 2021 model year vehicles using 32 different apps. The biggest complaint was slow response times.Joanne Elves/The Globe and Mail

You can make purchases with your smartphone, monitor your home security system and even open the front door remotely. But when it comes to controlling car functions, consumers find apps offered by carmakers are increasingly difficult to use.

Automotive apps linked to your smartphone are “a top pain point for customers,” according to a recent study by J.D. Power. Poor performance of vehicle apps also ranks as one of the most problematic issues in its annual Initial Quality Study (IQS).

“The car manufacturers are definitely behind implementing a lot of [app technology],” Frank Hanley, senior director of Global Automotive Advisory Services for J.D. Power, said in an interview. “They’re off to a rocky start, to say the least.”

J.D. Power surveyed 1,010 drivers of 2021 model year vehicles using 32 different apps. They include common ones such as Acura/HondaLink, Chrysler/Dodge/Ram Uconnect and myCadillac/myChevrolet/myGMC.

The biggest complaint is over slow response times. While survey respondents said they would wait up to 10 seconds for an app to respond, Hanley said some apps take 30 seconds or more. On a 10-point scale, respondents rated the importance of app speed at 8.2, but performance at 6.9.

These apps offer remote control of such functions as locking/unlocking, remote starting, raising/lowering windows and managing infotainment systems, including navigation. Most also allow you to connect to your phone, through Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. But performance falls far short of the promise, Hanley said. The 2021 IQS cited vehicle and phone technologies’ failure to properly connect as the most problematic area for new car owners, “leaving many owners unhappy.”

In fact, smartphone connectivity to the vehicle’s infotainment systems worsened significantly from the previous year, the company reported, likely because of a shift from plug-in to wireless technology.

Anyone who has seen the familiar “Can’t connect to your car screen” message on their vehicle’s digital display knows the frustration of smartphone-based control of apps. For example, when Tesla recently updated its app software, one frustrated Tesla 3 owner complained on a Reddit forum, calling the update “stupid” and asking “how the hell do I turn on the seat warmers without turning on climate control now?”

Yes, seat warmers. Remember when you could just press a button? Hanley said unstable links to smartphone controls are testing consumer tolerance.

He said automakers are playing catchup because they are retrofitting app controls onto devices that were designed to be operated by switches, such as windows. One notable exception, Tesla, is ahead of many legacy automakers because its cars were designed with connectivity in mind, he said.

Brett Smith, director of technology for the Center for Automotive Research, in Ann Arbor, Mich., said Tesla “absolutely” has an edge over legacy carmakers, which he calls “the traditionals.”

“In the traditionals, there’s an old saying, ‘We do it that way because that’s how we did it in the past.’”

Tesla was quicker to adopt near-field communication (NFC) technology, a wireless radio communications standard, like Bluetooth or WiFi, that can be used to unlock doors and start vehicles. Tesla cars also have cellular phone hardware that keeps the vehicle constantly connected wherever there is a signal. Hanley said because electric cars have huge battery capacity, they are in an awake state whereas ICE cars, with lower battery capacity, put their systems to sleep when not in use.

In a ranking of app performance, Tesla came out best in the J.D. Power study, earning 795 points on a 1,000-point scale. The industry average was 697 points. Volvo performed nearly as well (786), followed by Hyundai/Genesis (760) and Subaru (745). The worst performers were Ram (549), Porsche (569) and Alfa (612).

John Bardwell, Toronto-based automotive product specialist with Bond Brand Loyalty, said consumers should cut automakers some slack on the apps. Phone makers, he said, share some of the blame for connectivity problems.

“I hate CarPlay, I despise it,” said Bardwell. “And Android Auto isn’t much better.”

Smith notes that designing apps is more complex for carmakers than it is for phone developers because the issues are complex – for example, balancing safety with usability – and the pace of automotive development is faster than it has been in the industry’s history. He also noted that apps on a smartphone often are not expected to link with another source, yet those in vehicles must.

Hanley said automakers need to improve app speed and develop additional functions, such as real-time diagnostic data, if they hope to convince drivers to embrace the technologies.

“They need a game-changer – that one app that is irresistible,” said Hanley.

This will become more urgent because automakers want to introduce user fees for in-vehicle apps, including tools to control such basic functions as seat-heaters.

“Will customers be willing to pay for basic functions?” he said. “You pay 60, 70 or even 80 thousand dollars for a car, and now they want you to [buy a subscription] to operate basic functions? Customers [will not be] happy about that.”

Smith says while drivers may need to be patient while the apps evolve, “That’s not what consumers are good at.”

Bardwell said phone makers, like Apple and Android-based companies, need to work with automakers with the goal of creating the best shared experience.

“To my mind, it’s a work in progress,” said Bardwell. “The day I can get into a car and the interface is intuitive, that’s when they’ve got it right.”

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