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Initial Quality Study Highlights the Commercial Risks of Vehicle Automation

Sam Abuelsamid
Jun 29, 2016

Connected Vehicles

For many years after J.D. Power and Associates began conducting its Initial Quality Study (IQS) 3 decades ago, most problems reported by customers in the first 90 days of vehicle ownership were either defects or non-functional features. However, in the past decade, the nature of reported problems has shifted toward what J.D. Power calls design-related issues. This could pose a serious problem for manufacturers as they rush to introduce autonomous driving technology.

At a recent meeting of the Automotive Press Association in Detroit, J.D. Power vice president Renee Stephens presented the 2016 IQS results. The industry as a whole improved by 6% in 2016 to just 105 problems per 100 vehicles, the best improvement in 7 years. Among the reported problems, those that fall into the audio, connectivity, electronics, and navigation areas continue to represent the largest category of complaints.

Voice recognition and connected devices still befuddle consumers. Numerous manufacturers including Ford have seen ratings decline in past years as a result of difficulties using infotainment systems. “Expected reliability remains the most important consideration when purchasing a new vehicle, cited by 49% of owners,” said Stephens. “It’s critical that technology be implemented correctly or consumers lose trust.”

Potential Problems

An increasing number of new vehicles now include advanced driver assist systems (ADAS) such as adaptive cruise control and lane keeping aids. However, if features don’t work as expected by the consumer, they often get turned off after a few false positives or surprises. This highlights a potentially serious problem for the auto industry in the coming decade as semi and fully autonomous systems are increasingly rolled out in the marketplace. Navigant Research’s Autonomous Vehicles report forecasts that nearly 5 million autonomous vehicles are expected to be sold in 2025, a volume that is expected to grow to more than 40 million in 2030.

Regardless of current ADAS and whether future autonomous systems work as the engineers intend them to, it is absolutely imperative that they work as consumers expect. Autonomous capability will add significant cost to vehicles, and until there is a shift toward on-demand mobility services, consumers will have to absorb that cost. If their experience with the stepping stone technologies is excessively negative, the market will reject these technologies.

Contradictory Views

This will be particularly true if consumers realize that autonomous systems don’t work at all in the scenarios where they are most likely to want to hand over control, such as in poor weather. A major market force for automated driving is improving safety. Related to the general functionality of these systems is the problem of ethics where, as is often the case, the public has contradictory views. A new study by MIT professor Iyad Rahwan shows consumers want autonomous vehicles to minimize casualties in the event of unavoidable crashes. However, that only applies if that person is not the potential casualty. It comes down to protect everyone—but protect me first.

If society as a whole is ever going to benefit from the potential of autonomous vehicles in reducing collisions, congestion, and energy use, much will have to change in society. Consumers will have to be educated in how these systems work so that expectations can be set appropriately. If the bar is not adjusted, consumer complaints in IQS and other studies will skyrocket, and this technology could die on the vine.