Car owners pay dearly for tech they don't use

·3 min read

Technology can be a big seller in new cars, but it turns out that many digital features go unused — assuming owners even know their car has them.

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Why it matters: High-tech features are driving up vehicle prices. But if consumers don't use them — or are frustrated because the stuff doesn't work properly — then both automakers and car buyers are wasting their money.

Driving the news: For more than 1 in 3 advanced technologies, most owners didn't even use the feature during the first three months of ownership, a J.D. Power tech study found.

  • Usually, owners say it's because they don't need the feature, but sometimes it's because they don't know about it or find it difficult to use.

BMW's gesture control technology is a great example. It's supposed to let you wiggle a finger or wave your hand to perform tasks like adjusting the radio volume or answering a call — as opposed to touching a screen or button.

  • But the tech had the lowest overall satisfaction score in J.D. Power's annual U.S. Tech Experience Index for the second year in a row, with owners reporting 41 problems — meaning complaints — per 100 vehicles.

  • My thought bubble: I drove a BMW X6 last year that had gesture control as part of a $2,300 Premium package. I concur with BMW owners. It was easier to just use the buttons.

Other built-in technologies often go unused, despite big investments by automakers to add them. Some examples:

Digital marketplace: General Motors was the first to equip millions of cars with an in-car commerce platform called Marketplace that lets you order food, make restaurant and hotel reservations, and find gas stations from your dashboard.

  • But 61% of owners say they've never used their car's digital marketplace, and 51% said they don't need it.

Driver/passenger communications: Honda, Hyundai and Toyota are among carmakers that let drivers talk more easily with rear-seat occupants via a microphone or camera.

  • 52% say they've never used the system, and 40% say they don't need it. (Who needs a mic when you can just turn around and yell at your kids?)

Between the lines: Consumers are more likely to use emerging technology if the car dealer does a good job of demonstrating how it works, J.D. Power found.

  • But a lot of car salespeople aren't fully trained to explain all the features of the cars they sell — and often buyers don't ask, aren't interested, or can't take it all in.

  • Some dealers encourage buyers to schedule a follow-up visit to the dealership for a refresher.

  • When a buyer does get a lesson from their dealer about how to use an advanced feature, they use it more, the study found.

  • Examples of these features include "safe exit assist technology" — which warns parked drivers to wait for traffic before opening the door — and trailer assistance technology, which helps drivers maneuver a boat or RV, for example.

  • Yes, but: Owners are more than twice as likely to learn about such technology from an outside source (71%) than from a dealer (30%), the study found.

What car owners love: cameras, cameras and more cameras.

  • The top-rated technologies all provide an extra set of eyes: backup cameras with trajectory guidance, rear-view mirror cameras that enhance visibility, and 360-degree ground view cameras.

  • Electric vehicle owners also love one-pedal driving technology — which allows a driver to lift their foot off the accelerator to slow or stop without having to brake.

The bottom line: In-car technology has to be simple to use — and well-explained to the driver ahead of time — or it's not worth the money.

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