Ever wondered why certain tech giants seem to hit the ball out of the park whenever they launch a new product?
It's the technology X-factor — that intangible combination of characteristics that make a product or a service "the one." The one that everybody wants, the first choice among competitors. This is the indescribable quality that separated the iPod from the Zune.
Apple, where I worked before joining J.D. Power, is a leader in emerging technology. It excels in innovation and has loyalists because it's able to quickly identify what its users want. Apple knows how to make "the one."
Unlike Apple, automakers face roadblocks — especially when it comes to safety and regulatory compliance — that slow their ability to implement features vehicle owners will find useful and life-changing. Fear of legal attack, government bureaucracy and historical protocols collide with today's seemingly rapid-fire "think it/build it" cadence of technological breakthroughs.
The redesigned J.D. Power 2020 Tech Experience Index Study, or TXI, shows the balance between innovation, execution and the user experience, helping to determine which technologies become a mainstay and which become a distant memory. In other words, which vehicle technologies have the X-factor?
While "agile" isn't a common descriptor for most established automakers, technology introductions are vitally important in the purchase decision for most vehicle shoppers.
Innovation is critical to remain competitive, but automakers cannot pursue technology just to have something to say and something to put on the window sticker.
Rear-seat reminder is a successful example from the 2020 TXI study. This technology can combine auditory or visual alerts to check the back seat at the end of a trip, helping to solve the devastating problem of deaths that can happen when a child is forgotten in a hot car. This tragic scenario sparked an industrywide call to action for these systems to become standard equipment by the 2025 model year, and nine brands — Buick, Cadillac, Chevrolet, GMC, Hyundai, Infiniti, Kia, Nissan and Subaru — have versions in the marketplace.
Rear-seat reminder received one of the highest Execution Index scores in the luxury and mass-market segments from owners. Overall, owners applaud its ability to save children's lives, but it also scores well for being a helpful reminder of items that may be overlooked. (No one wants to find Friday night's leftovers on Saturday afternoon.)
Currently, 42 percent of luxury owners and 35 percent of mass-market owners "definitely will" want this feature on their next vehicle. It's a tech to watch as it becomes more widely available and more accurate. Kia and some Hyundai models, for example, use an ultrasonic sensor to detect movement in the rear seats while, for most others, the reminder is triggered by opening a rear door.
Part of Apple's success in earning early adopters is its tech is largely viewed as intuitive and useful, and users trust it works how it's intended.
However, there's an enormous difference between trusting a technology that's used on a handheld device vs. one weighing more than 2 tons that travels at 110 feet per second. A vehicle technology failure is unacceptable.
Rear-seat reminder is also intuitive, useful and works as intended. Unfortunately, automakers struggle to earn owners' trust in the technologies necessary for more automated driving. Too many are implementing solutions that are not intuitive or perform poorly.
To illustrate, lane-keeping assist systems that have graduated from TXI to J.D. Power's Initial Quality Study have become ubiquitous in recent years.
I've driven vehicles where the execution benefited me on a long trip. I've also experienced versions I immediately found useless and stress-inducing. Both vehicles had window stickers that listed the same feature.
Careful attention to TXI results as technologies enter the market can help automakers avoid rolling out the wrong execution and damaging their reputation.
This reveals an issue: How can shoppers understand how a technology that can't be practically demonstrated will work?
Most owners won't know how automatic emergency braking works or why it engages when it does, and it's nearly impossible to demonstrate on a test drive.
My 84-year-old father, with my encouragement, recently acquired a vehicle with automatic emergency braking. He told me of a few near collisions while trying to test it. I went through multiple screens on his vehicle, only to find the system wasn't activated. Ease of use can't be overlooked.
Automated technologies will take time for consumers to fully accept, but it will only be via intuitive and well-executed examples that owners will embrace and pay for such technologies.