Infotainment systems — those conglomerations of audio, navigation, phone connectivity, and other electronics — are more than ever a defining feature of new cars.
These systems offer a way for automakers to draw in young buyers and differentiate themselves in an age where cars are more similar than different.
For automakers, they’re big money makers. A July 2013 study by Visiongain found the global automotive infotainment market will be worth $31.72 billion this year, and more in years to come.
They're a big deal in China, too, where more and more automakers are looking to expand sales. "The current OEM market in China is worth $2.7 billion; that includes audio, audio/video, navigation, and embedded telematics," Michael Liu, a senior analyst at IHS Automotive, said in an interview.
But they’re bad news for drivers for two reasons: They don’t work well, and they’re distracting.
Dr. David Strayer and his team at the University of Utah found mental distractions like sending a text or email, even via voice commands, slows reaction times. On a scale created for the study, they ranked as “high danger.”
No Relief In Sight
Sophisticated infotainment systems are one way to attract young consumers who are less inclined to buy cars, Karl Brauer, a senior analyst at Kelley Blue Book, said in an interview.
The objections of naysayers like Consumer Reports and AAA aren’t enough to dissuade automakers from providing them.
Just about every car you can buy in the U.S. today is quite safe, reliable, and fuel efficient. The spectrum from the worst car to the best one is “almost nothing” now, especially compared to 20 years ago. There are only two things left that really separate today’s models, he argued: styling/image and infotainment.
To stand apart from the pack, then, automakers will keep shoving more features into the center console. No company wants to walk away from a technology that consumers want and their competition offers. The result is a “mini arms race” to offer more functions, more touch screens, more apps.
That really worries me.
I'm No Luddite
This isn’t a cry against advancing technology. It’s a plea for caution.