From about 1950 to 1995, automobiles largely operated the same way. Yes, the occasional pushbutton gear selector or thumbwheel radio volume knob came along, but for the most part, window cranks, radio tuning knobs, gear shift levers and window defrosters all worked exactly the same, no matter what brand of car you found yourself driving.
Today, all bets are off. You show up late at night at an airport rental counter and you’re handed the keys to an unfamiliar car and you could spend 10 minutes trying to figure out how to find the AM band on the radio, if it even has one.
Technological advances have made cars safer, more reliable and more efficient, but the flipside is that they’re also way more annoying than ever. Manufacturers spend billions on this technology and people HATE. IT.
Don’t take our word for it. Take a look at JD Powers’ annual satisfaction surveys. Without fail, every single year, manufacturers build reliable, attractive, safe products and have their teeth kicked in by their customers who absolutely loathe how the infotainment technology works. And it’s getting worse, not better.
These new car “features” are a fact of everyday life now, whether you like it or not.
Blanket Statement Alert: Voice recognition systems are terrible.
They’re supposed to be a panacea that solves the driver distraction issue, but they end up causing more distraction than preventing it because they’re so terrible at the one job they’re supposed to do.
Yes, some voice recognition technology is better than others. The dial by name function in the Nissan Rogue we drove last week did its job. But others are woefully inadequate, even doing our best to Midwest-ize our nasally Boston accent.
And as manufacturers cave in to giants like Apple, it gets even worse with Apple CarPlay.
Siri is flat out horrible at voice recognition. From The Verge: “Voice recognition has been the biggest drag on Siri since the assistant’s introduction in 2011. Too often, Siri whiffs when it tries to interpret your commands. And even when it gets that part right, there’s a good chance Siri only gets you halfway to an answer before it crashes headlong into its own limitations.”
Sounds terrific. Siri, where’s the closest bridge abutment I can drive this car into?
Overly Sensitive Limits on Infotainment Inputs
You’re sitting in bumper-to-bumper traffic on the Southeast Expressway, moving at speeds that could be doubled if you got out and walked. You take the opportunity to try and enter an address in your navigation system as you let off the brake, rolling forward ever-so-slightly as the traffic crawl continues.
BZZT. Fail. You can’t enter an address if the car moves at all. Your PASSENGER can’t do it, either, regardless of the fact that they have no more control of your car than the guy sitting in the bus next to you in traffic.
This is true of nav systems and any kind of phone pairing procedure. Some brands won’t even let you pair a device if the gear selector is in anything other than “PARK.”
Of course, you could use the voice recognition. (See above.)
Reinvented Gear Selectors
Mechanical gear selectors have pretty much been gone for at least a decade. All the gear shift is connected to is a bundle of wires that communicate with the transmission, telling it what gear to be in.
There’s a damned good reason to reinvent how gear selectors work: They take up a lot of space. With that in mind, a gear selector like the one on some current Ford and Lincoln products makes a whole lot of sense. It’s just a row of buttons on the dash, clearly marked, that opens up a ton of space in the console.
The problem is that most of these newly designed gear selectors are almost universally hated. Chrysler came up with not one, but two designs that were so awful that one was found to be partially responsible for the death of a professional athlete who ran himself over after thinking he’d selected “PARK.”
The second design was a rotary shifter that was almost the same size and shape as the fan speed knob placed about an inch away, making it easy to select “Reverse” instead of turning the fan down in the dark
Missing Radio Knobs
I used to rant and rave about manufacturers that included radio volume and tuning knobs the size of a No. 2 pencil eraser. In 2019, I look back at those halcyon days of tiny knobs with great fondness, since some manufacturers have decided to get rid of them entirely.
Honda was the originator of this maddening trend with the Honda Fit. Honda equipped it with an iPad-like interface that included a volume selector behind a sheet of glass, which provided absolutely no manual feedback. It had a second volume control on the steering wheel, but where the hell did the knob go? It was so universally reviled that the knob reappeared in the current version.
Too bad vehicles like the Mitsubishi Eclipse Cross seem to have stolen the same design from Honda.
The problem isn’t just that it’s hard to use at speed. Here’s the situation: You start the car and the volume on the radio was higher than you want. Go to turn it down. No volume knob. Press the “button” on the interface. The system has about 30 seconds of latency when it’s going through its startup procedure, so that button doesn’t work at all. Steering wheel buttons were similarly latent.
Please just put the button back.
Radio buttons that only scroll through presets
Unlike those offending radios without knobs at all, some car radios have a big, giant, helpful tuning knob. Much appreciated.
But their curse is that instead of allowing you to tune the radio through all the stations, it only allows you to cycle through the presets.
Great Marconi’s ghost, WHY?!
If I’m outside of the eleven mile radius that seems to be the effective range of any given AM or FM radio station, my stored stations are useless. I would then have to use the Chiclet-sized buttons to scan, instead of using the big, friendly knob.
That’s just stupid.
Defrost that only works at full blast
BMW used to be the most notorious offender, though decades of complaints seem to have had some impact.
The only way defrost used to work on a BMW was at a fan speed that could push the windshield right out of the car. If you tried to turn the fan speed down, the defroster turns off automatically. On cold, wet, winter days, you often want to have the defroster running more or less constantly, but on a very low fan speed to keep the windshield clear.
For some reason, I can do this on a 1978 Chevrolet Blazer, but I can’t on a relatively modern BMW.
Traction Control you can’t turn off
Traction control is awesome, and I’ve appreciated it almost 100 percent of the time.
However, there are times when traction control specifically needs to be defeated. Example: Say you’re parked off the road somewhere after a bit of snow, and you — shamefully — have not purchased winter tires. The lack of traction means that no matter how hard you put the accelerator to the floor, you’re not moving. At that point, turning the traction control off and gently rocking the vehicle with on and off application of the throttle can get you moving again.
Not so much with some cars, especially those that are meant for high fuel mileage. The VW Jetta with the 1.4-liter and an automatic transmission, for example. I can see instances where you could be calling AAA to extricate you from some wet grass, especially with traction-free, low rolling resistance tires cars like this are equipped with.
The idea is really great. You simply push a button and the tailgate opens magically. Here’s the problem: If you place any effort behind pushing the button, the mechanism seems to want to reverse itself, and you end up in some kind of battle of wits with the tailgate that now seems to want to close instead of open.
It’s like battling some dimwit inside the car pressing the power lock button at the same time you’re trying to pull the door handle.
“Is it open now?
Try it now!
Let go of the handle!
Now try it!”
Ugh. Do not want.
Soft button door openers
The real culprit with the tailgate is the button. Somewhere along the line, engineers decided that the humble door handle — that had been opening doors since approximately the ADVENT OF DOORS — was no longer good enough. No, we needed to have a soft-touch button to push that would open the tailgate or unlock doors electronically.
They stink. They should be outlawed.
I can think of a dozen circumstances in which they don’t work, most specifically when the thousand features in the car that require constant 12-volt battery power finally drain the battery on a cold night.
I’ll shame BMW again for this rather specific instance on a 2002 BMW 5-Series wagon we used to own: The battery died, and so did the ability to open the rear tailgate. Of course, I had jumper cables. However, they were in the handy storage area under the cargo floor, which I now had to climb over the rear seats to access.
Oh, and guess where the battery is: You guessed it, behind an access panel in the cargo area, which you can’t get to since the tailgate won’t open.
GIVE ME A MECHANICAL HANDLE PLEASE.
Hidden USB Ports
I appreciate the fact that manufacturers are equipping cars with USB ports in addition to standard 12-volt charging outlets. Everything from GoPros to cell phones charge with USB cables.
What I do not appreciate is a USB that’s jammed in the bottom of a console that you have to access by touch for 27 minutes to try and figure out which way you’re supposed to plug something into it.
At 75 miles an hour.
In the dark.
I had this experience recently in an otherwise magical $450,000 Rolls-Royce Cullinan. The USB port was in the console, which kept it out of the line of sight of the potentate riding in the back seat. I located it and tried to plug my iPhone cable into it unsuccessfully for about 22 minutes.
Because I couldn’t actually SEE it, it took me this long to realize that it was actually a USB-C port, which apparently are only owned by the kind of 1%-ers that ride around in these things.
Put the USB port somewhere obvious and put a light on it, FOR THE LOVE OF MIKE.
What’s the feature that drives you more insane than any of these?