Test drive the tech, not just the car

The Hamilton Spectator - - BUSINESS - DEE-ANN DURBIN

DETROIT — Car shop­ping isn’t just about kick­ing the tires any­more. It’s also about test­ing the tech­nol­ogy.

The rapidly evolv­ing in-car in­fo­tain­ment and nav­i­ga­tion sys­tems can be be­wil­der­ing for all but the most tech-savvy car buy­ers. The av­er­age ve­hi­cle on Cana­dian roads is 11.6 years old; that means many peo­ple last went car shop­ping be­fore iPhones were in­vented.

Car buy­ers should make sure they can pair their phone with a car, play mu­sic from their phone, make a hands-free call and use the nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem be­fore they leave the dealer lot, ex­perts say. They should make sure vol­ume knobs, cli­mate con­trols and other tech­nol­ogy is in­tu­itive and dis­played the way they like. Some driv­ers want vol­ume con­trols on the steer­ing wheel, for ex­am­ple, while oth­ers pre­fer a knob on the dash­board.

Safety tech­nol­ogy is also chang­ing rapidly, and buy­ers should fa­mil­iar­ize them­selves with what the car can and can’t do. Some ve­hi­cles will brake au­to­mat­i­cally to avoid a col­li­sion, while oth­ers flash a warn­ing and help the driver pump the brakes but won’t bring the car to a full stop.

“Spend some time in the park­ing lot sit­ting in the car and just mess­ing with it,” says Ron Mon­toya, se­nior consumer ad­vice edi­tor for the car shop­ping site Ed­munds.com.

The is­sue is a se­ri­ous one for the auto in­dus­try. Con­sumers’ com­plaints about phone con­nec­tiv­ity, nav­i­ga­tion and in­fo­tain­ment sys­tems have low­ered ve­hi­cle de­pend­abil­ity scores in an­nual rank­ings from J.D. Power and Consumer Re­ports. Poor show­ings in such rank­ings can put a dent in sales. Car shop­ping site Au­totrader.com has found that as many as one-third of buy­ers will choose a dif­fer­ent brand if they think a ve­hi­cle’s tech fea­tures are too hard to use.

To com­bat that, some brands are set­ting up tech­nol­ogy help desks at deal­er­ships and boost­ing em­ployee train­ing. In 2013, Gen­eral Mo­tors formed a staff of 50 tech spe­cial­ists to help deal with an in­crease in ques­tions from cus­tomers about new tech­nol­ogy. Those spe­cial­ists train U.S. deal­ers to pair cus­tomers’ phones, set up in-car Wi-Fi and set pref­er­ences like ra­dio sta­tions.

When he takes cus­tomers for test drives, Paul Makowski, the sales man­ager for Ed Rinke Chevro­let Buick GMC in Cen­ter Line, Mich., pairs his own phone with the car and has cus­tomers make a call, stream mu­sic and do other tasks. He uses his own phone so cus­tomers don’t worry that their data will be shared with the deal­er­ship.

Here are some tips for tak­ing a tech test drive:

Take your time: Test driv­ing the tech­nol­ogy should take at least 45 min­utes, says Brian Moody, the ex­ec­u­tive edi­tor at Au­totrader.com. Find out whether your phone is com­pat­i­ble with the car and learn how to pair it. Call a friend and ask if the sound is clear. Make sure the car un­der­stands your voice com­mands. En­ter an ad­dress into the nav­i­ga­tion sys­tem or, if the car has the ca­pa­bil­ity, down­load an ad­dress to the car from your phone.

Up­date your phone: Make sure your phone has the lat­est op­er­at­ing sys­tem when you go shop­ping. New cars will be most com­pat­i­ble with up­dated phones.

De­cide what you like: Six per cent of new cars sold last year had Ap­ple CarPlay and An­droid Auto, which dis­play many of your phone’s apps on the touch screen. That’s ex­pected to rise to 50 per cent by 2020, ac­cord­ing to IHS Markit. The fa­mil­iar in­ter­face of those sys­tems can make it eas­ier to tran­si­tion to in-car tech­nol­ogy. But Mon­toya says there are some short­com­ings. Ap­ple CarPlay doesn’t sup­port the Waze traf­fic app or Google maps, for ex­am­ple. You should de­cide what sys­tem is best for you.

Shop around: Even if you’ve set­tled on a ve­hi­cle, it never hurts to test drive some­thing else. You may find, for ex­am­ple, that you pre­fer cli­mate con­trols on a touch screen in­stead of on dash­board knobs, or that one ve­hi­cle has eas­ier-to-use but­tons on the steer­ing wheel for mak­ing calls or ad­just­ing vol­ume. “It might ex­pose you to some­thing bet­ter,” Mon­toya says.

Don’t for­get safety: Lane departure warn­ing sys­tems, backup cam­eras and blind-spot de­tec­tion sys­tems work dif­fer­ently de­pend­ing on the car. Some lane departure sys­tems buzz the seat if you drift out of your lane, for ex­am­ple, while oth­ers beep loudly. That’s some­thing you might hear or feel a lot, so choose the tech­nol­ogy you pre­fer.

Buy what you need: Not ev­ery­one wants to stream Spo­tify and chat with Siri while they’re driv­ing. If you’re in that cat­e­gory, choose a stripped-down model so you’re not pay­ing for fea­tures you don’t need, Mon­toya says. For ex­am­ple, a Toy­ota Camry starts at $23,050, but the EnTune in­fo­tain­ment pack­age costs US$775 ex­tra.

THE AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS FILE PHOTO

Half of new cars in 2020 will have tech­nol­ogy to sync phone apps to dash screens.

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