In-car electronics are changing the way we drive. GPS navigation, wireless Bluetooth capability, and an array of audio sources and inputs are commonly available even in today's least-expensive cars. The smart phone, which has become a must-have accessory for many drivers, is being increasingly integrated into vehicles' infotainment systems. And if your current car doesn't let you perform many functions simply by using your voice, your next one probably will.
But how are drivers coping with that rapid change? What features are hot, and what's not? And how easy are the systems to learn? A new national survey*, conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, shows that those features are largely well-received. Even people who don't initially intend on buying them generally end up using them just as much as those who seek them out. Drivers are also taking advantage of all of those new audio options while, yes, leaving the CDs at home. (Read: "How do CDs, MP3s, and streaming music compare for in-car audio quality?")
If you experienced the early voice-control systems in cars, you may not have been impressed. You usually needed to remember strict and complicated command structures, often had to repeat what you said several times, and could end up just short of having a heated argument with the system.
The best of today's systems are much improved. They respond quickly and accurately to commands, and they allow you to use natural speech instead of requiring specific commands. The end result is that voice-control systems can make it easier and safer to perform many functions—whether making phone calls, getting directions, or choosing tunes for the ride—while keeping your eyes focused on the road ahead.
Our survey shows that most respondents found voice controls easy to use and were very satisfied overall. About two-thirds of those with voice-controlled phone or audio systems said they use them regularly, and more than half said they were comfortable using them even within the first week. Not surprisingly, younger drivers adapted to using voice controls faster than older drivers on average.
The days of listening only to AM, FM, or CDs are long gone. Drivers can now choose from a wide variety of audio sources, with almost limitless music choices. Just about every new car allows you to connect a smart phone or portable music player to the audio system by plugging into a USB or mini-jack port or connecting wirelessly through Bluetooth. You can listen to your own audio library or stream Internet radio stations such as Pandora or Slacker.
Many vehicles also come equipped to receive SiriusXM satellite radio or HD radio, which allows you to receive digital signals from local radio stations. Or you can listen to music, podcasts, and more stored on a memory card or flash drive.
Our survey found that drivers are using all of those options. FM radio is still the most popular, with 71 percent of respondents reporting they frequently tune in while driving. The next most popular alternative is the smart phone, with 59 percent frequently using it to listen to audio files. Thirty-four percent also listen to music on an MP3 player.
Almost half of the respondents frequently tune in to satellite radio. But because many new vehicles include a free trial subscription, many in the survey are probably not paying the usual $120 to $200 annual fee.
Thirty percent said they listen to Internet radio stations through their smart phone. Those stations provide free access, but hours of streaming can eat into your phone's data allowance. To avoid unwanted surprises on your phone bill, be sure to regularly check your data usage.
Survey respondents had high praise for HD Radio, which came as a bit of a surprise to our auto testers. The vast majority of those who use it said they found it better than a regular FM radio signal in terms of sound quality and signal reception. That doesn't reflect our experiences while driving test cars, with our staff often reporting unreliable HD Radio signals that frequently come and go, resulting in echoes and other annoying effects, even in suburbs near New York City.
What's not going along for the ride is the CD, which only 26 percent of our respondents still frequently listen to in their cars. CD purists may argue that you give up audio quality by using a phone or portable music player. But when measuring sound quality in a Mercedes-Benz S550 with a high-end audio system, Consumer Reports audio engineers found no noticeable difference between a CD and music stored on an iPod Touch and recorded at 256 kilobits per second, which is typical of online music stores such as iTunes. We also found no difference in sound quality between connecting the device with a cable or via Bluetooth. The difference was more noticeable at 128 Kbps, but many listeners might not even notice.
Drivers can get turn-by-turn directions from several sources, including built-in factory navigation systems; telematics systems, such as GM's OnStar or Hyundai's Blue Link; portable GPS devices; and smart phones equipped with Google Maps or other navigation apps.
Built-in systems usually have larger screens, which make them easier to see and use in the car. And they don't require a separate power cord or windshield mount that adds to the clutter. Those may be among the reasons built-in systems are used more often than the other three among those who have them. Among survey respondents whose cars are equipped with such a system, 56 percent said they use it frequently. The second choice for navigation is a smart phone (40 percent), followed by portable devices (28) and a telematics system (21).
Telematics systems, which usually require a $200 annual subscription fee, are showing up in more cars. In addition to navigation, they provide emergency crash alerts, which aid first responders in providing help, a tracking service in case of theft, and even emergency door unlocking if you lock your key in the car. For directions, the driver can press a button to speak with a live operator, who then sends them to the car.
Anyway you cut it, smart phones have become more popular than portable GPS devices as a navigation source of choice. Compared with a built-in system, finding an address or point of interest is often easier or quicker with a phone. Also, many built-in systems don't allow users to key in an address on the fly. That is intended to increase safety, but it may be encouraging drivers to reach for a portable device instead. In addition, automakers can charge hundreds of dollars for map updates. Smart-phone apps usually download data—constantly updated free—from the Internet.
Using a handheld phone while driving can increase driver distraction. That's why 13 states and the District of Columbia ban such phone use while driving.
Most new cars are equipped with Bluetooth technology, which lets a driver wirelessly link his cell phone to the car. Using a built-in microphone and the vehicle's audio system, the driver can then make and receive calls without taking his hands off the steering wheel.
Half of our survey respondents say they frequently use Bluetooth for calls while behind the wheel. The bad news is that 80 percent of our respondents with Bluetooth say they still at least occasionally pick up their phone to make or answer calls while driving. Younger drivers are the worst offenders, with 63 percent of those ages 18 to 29 saying they frequently pick up the phone while driving, compared with about 50 percent of all age groups who say they frequently use Bluetooth.
In-car electronics is the fastest growing area in today's auto market. The systems can significantly enhance our driving experiences by providing more information and entertainment, and by making everything from our commutes to road trips more pleasant and efficient.
Our survey makes it clear that drivers are using and quickly adapting to the features. But most respondents had to get them as part of an options package, which often included unwanted features as well. Do the math to make sure that the systems you want are worth the total package cost.
Manufacturers are adapting as well, introducing new features each year and better integration. As systems improve and become easier to use, that will encourage wider use, less stress, and increased safety. That said, we've found that many infotainment and control systems are still initially too complicated and distracting to use, particularly Cadillac's Cue, Ford's MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch, and Honda's Honda Link systems.
When buying a car, it's important that you learn about the functions and capabilities of those systems and get familiar with how to use the controls before you drive off the dealer's lot.
At delivery, most dealers will pair your phone and teach you how the car's system works. Insist on getting that instruction so that you can get up to speed quickly and get the most out of your vehicle.
Consumers Union, the policy and advocacy arm of Consumer Reports, says there needs to be a balance between letting drivers use in-car electronics in a safe manner and limiting tasks that are too distracting. We support the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration's current work aimed at reducing driver distractions caused by confusing vehicle controls and infotainment systems. We also support the agency's efforts to address the distractions caused from using cell phones in cars. Though NHTSA is focused on making its safety guidelines voluntary, we'd much prefer them to be mandatory. We also support continued government research to determine how drivers use in-car technology, which can give us more insight into the risks involved and the possible solutions. And it's vital that NHTSA have adequate resources to determine how the industry is complying with distracted-driving guidelines
Conducted by the Consumer Reports National Research Center, the survey reached out to a national sampling of drivers age 18 and up who own smart phones and have a 2012- to 2015-model-year vehicle equipped with at least two of the following: Bluetooth connectivity, a factory navigation system, and voice controls for navigation, audio, or telephone functions. This article also appeared in the October 2014 issue of Consumer Reports magazine.