Why Isn't Satnav As Simple As Google Maps? Drivers Prefer Phones For Getting Around

January 14, 2013

If your job requires you to spend time slouched in front of a computer, chances are good that you use several software programs to accomplish your daily duties. And naturally, you find some of those programs easier to use than others.

That's similar to the way that many drivers feel about navigation software. Two studies -- one from J.D. Power, another from McKinsey & Company -- reveal that drivers are now relying more heavily on smartphones for navigation and other functions because they're easier to use than in-dash infotainment systems.

The J.D. Power and Associates 2012 U.S. Navigation Usage and Satisfaction Study surveyed 20,704 individuals who own or lease a 2012 model-year vehicle that came with a navigation system. Power conducted the survey in October and November of last year.

The study asked consumers to rate their in-dash systems in six areas: "ease of use; routing; navigation display screen; speed of system; voice directions; and voice activation". Respondents provide scores on a scale of 0 to 1,000. For automakers, Power's findings aren't so good:

  • Overall satisfaction with factory-installed navigation systems has fallen by 13 points from last year, slipping from 694 to 681.
  • One of the biggest tumbles came in ease of use, where customers rated their cars' systems at an average of 637 -- 25 points below last year.
  • The number of people who use smartphones to get around is surging. In 2011, 37% of drivers used an app for navigation. In 2012, that number rose a full ten points to 47%.
  • Worse, nearly half of those surveyed -- a whopping 46% -- said that they would not be likely to purchase another in-dash system if their smartphone app could be displayed on the center stack. (Note: the technology to do so isn't quite there yet, but it is just around the corner.)
  • Voice activation is a huge problem. Of those who don't currently have it on their in-dash system, 67% say they want it; of those who do have it, 80% say they want it again in the future. But voice activation ranked dead last in customer satisfaction, scoring just 544 points. Clearly, Siri's in-dash siblings aren't up to snuff.
  • What are consumer's biggest complaints about pre-installed systems? According to a press release from Power, six of the top ten problems revolve around "input and selection controls". The other four are largely concerned with readability and usability: "the inability to read the text due to size or location; the map not showing enough street names; the system was slow to boot/connect; and the screen lighting not working properly".
  • Although Power didn't supply a list of the worst-performing systems, the company did say that those on the Chrysler 300 and Dodge Charger (created by Garmin) and one found on the Porsche Cayenne (created by Harman) fared best in rankings.

The sample size of McKinsey & Company's Mobility of the Future Survey was significantly smaller than J.D. Power's, but its findings are similar -- and pose similarly troubling questions for automakers.

McKinsey & Company surveyed 3,673 U.S. adults on their feelings about transportation and mobile technology. Here are some of the major takeaways:

  • About 35% of smartphone owners use their phones while driving, and approximately 68% of that number use navigation features. A little math tells us that works out to be 25% of smartphone owners. (That's far less than the 47% mentioned above, but then, McKinsey's survey is smaller, and Power's survey focused on people who prioritize navigation enough to pay for a factory system.)
  • Most people who use their smartphones while driving do so to take calls on the road. A frightening 39% of the 35% cite above also use their phones to send and receive text messages, and 31% check email and use social media apps.
  • In-car connectivity is hugely important across generations. Among 40 to 69-year-olds, 73% said that they'd be willing to pay for in-car data access. Among 18 to 39-year-olds, the figure jumped to 83%.
  • On an unrelated note: contrary to many, many reports about Generation Y's disdain for automobiles, many in that demographic continue to see cars as status symbols. In fact, that sentiment was stronger among 18 to 29-year-olds than any other age group. (Though it bears pointing out that even among young people, the percentage of those who view cars as status symbols topped out at 52% -- and that was among those with high incomes. Lower-earning young people placed less value on automobiles.)


From where we sit, the findings from these two studies seem pretty clear. 

For starters, the smartphone isn't going away. Yes, it may change its shape -- in time, it may take the form of a wristwatch or a pair of contacts. But the preference for carrying some kind of computer, some kind of interface where personal information can be accessed on the fly, isn't likely to change.

It's equally clear that automakers have done a poor job in making their products easy to use. Admittedly, they have a big burden to bear: unlike smartphones, which rely heavily on apps and other software, in-dash systems have to control a range of things, including mechanical functions like air-conditioning. Of necessity, they're going to be somewhat bigger and bulkier.

Also in the defense of automakers: the way that people interact with their phones is different from the way they interact with their dashboards. More often than not, when we use our phones, we're able to pause what we're doing and give the phone interface our full attention. Interacting with an in-dash navigation system, when you're barreling down the highway at 70 mph, is a very, very different thing.

Still, automakers aren't doing themselves any favors by cranking out complicated in-dash systems when many drivers would simply prefer a screen that can mirror the smartphone screen they already know and love (with a few extra buttons for A/C and such).

Today's tech trends were summed up by Henry David Thoreau well over 100 years ago: "Simplify, simplify, simplify". Think of the switch from Flash to HTML 5, the jump from gangly browsers like Internet Explorer to those like Chrome, or the move from locally based programs and media to data that lives in the cloud and is accessible anywhere. If automakers aren't willing to follow that path, they may be forced off the road.

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