Cars and trucks have never been built better, but frustration with audio, infotainment and navigation features on new vehicles has never been worse.
That's the big takeaway from the 2012 J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study. For the first time, complaints about such features surpassed those about engines and transmissions as the top category.
The No. 1 beef: voice recognition devices not understanding commands.
Power says factory-installed hands-free communication devices are the "most-often-reported problem in the industry." Those complaints have soared 137 percent in the past four years.
"Voice recognition works," says David Sargent, Power's vice president of global automotive. "But it can be difficult sometimes. And at 80 mph, it's hard to use."
The survey is a wake-up call for automakers betting heavily on voice recognition technology to allow motorists to keep their hands on the wheel and their eyes on the road. It suggests that voice technology is far from a silver bullet and that many motorists are struggling to adapt.
And it seems likely to intensify the auto industry's search for better voice technology, such as Apple's Siri, and some alternatives. Meanwhile, federal regulators have yet to spell out what infotainment functions will be allowed in autos to limit driver distraction.
Sargent says the surge of voice recognition complaints follows a rapid rollout from a few luxury models just a few years ago to 80 percent of new vehicles sold.
"Voice recognition a few years ago was basically on only high-end vehicles," he says. "Now most vehicles have some type of hands-free operation."
Supplier executives acknowledge that motorists tend to reject voice technology if it doesn't work properly the first or second time. Perhaps the vehicle's cabin is too noisy, or the motorist hasn't memorized the proper commands, or the system has so many features that the user is confused.