Chrysler Group LLC is emerging a leader in touch screens by letting Ford Motor Co. and General Motors Co. jump ahead and stumble.
Blunders with the systems, which handle tasks from entertaining with Pandora Internet radio to reading text messages and mapping out directions, have dragged on Ford's (F) showings in surveys by Consumer Reports and J.D. Power & Associates. The No. 2 U.S. automaker said last month that it expects to fall short with quality metrics for a second straight year. GM's system for its Cadillac brand has drawn negative comparisons with Ford's in early reviews by Consumer Reports.
While its rivals plunged ahead with advanced controls and abandoned trusty knobs and buttons, Chrysler has moved more slowly with its simpler Uconnect system. In-car technology is gaining extra weight as industrywide quality of powertrains, design and interiors gets closer to parity.
"We've definitely seen a shift in terms of what breaks," Jake Fisher, the director of Consumer Reports' Auto Test Center, said in an interview at Bloomberg's Detroit bureau. He picked up his iPhone from a conference room table: "Now, it's this as opposed to transmissions and engines."
Consumer Reports, regarded as credible because it forgoes advertising and buys the cars it tests, published an Aug. 22 post on its website: "Why the MyFord Touch control system stinks." Plagued by issues with its electronics, Ford's namesake brand fell seven spots to second-to-last place in the magazine's auto-reliability survey announced last month. Its luxury nameplate Lincoln plunged 12 spots, the biggest drop.
"We want to be a leader in technology, and so we're having a few growing pains," Bill Ford, the chairman of Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford, told reporters Nov. 19 in Detroit. "Our customers are telling us it's absolutely the right way to go."
Without improving its system, Ford may be unable to keep David Cheslow as a customer. The 65-year-old life insurance agent said that the screen in his 2013 Ford Edge "froze" and went black on three separate occasions yesterday. He's had similar problems since buying the sport-utility vehicle in July.
"I wouldn't go for another Ford unless I knew that it was working the way that it's supposed to," said Cheslow, who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey, and owned two other Ford vehicles before purchasing the Edge.
GM (GM) sought to top Ford early this year with its Cadillac User Experience, or CUE, system with tablet computer-style touch screens. Early indications from Consumer Reports' testing is that CUE is "not any better" than Ford's system, Fisher said in an Oct. 29 interview.
Chrysler, which introduced its Uconnect system in 2003, has been relatively quiet in marketing its technology compared with GM and Ford. The automaker has introduced updated versions of its touch screens into new models as they debut rather than blanketing its whole lineup with its latest up-to-date system.
"We're doing more thoughtful integration," Marios Zenios, Chrysler's head of connectivity, said in an interview from the Uconnect command center in Chrysler's Auburn Hills, Michigan, headquarters.
When Zenios joined Chrysler in 2008, the automaker employed three people who specialized in the field of human machine interface, in which designers and engineers work on the layout and software of devices to make them easy to use. Chrysler now has "quite a force" of such personnel, he said, declining to provide a specific figure.
Chrysler has reason to be mum about details concerning its Uconnect staff, said Andrew Watt, chief executive officer of iTalent LLC. Watt's recruiting firm has been tapped by automakers and suppliers for eight to 10 searches this year to fill positions related to mobile technology in vehicles.
"Any intelligence about what's going on when it comes to this talent, you keep to yourself," said Watt, who is based in Troy, Michigan. "These are niche skills and this is the kind of content that attracts young buyers to cars. The only way to get these people is to take them from someone else."
Automakers face a challenge because virtually all consumers say they want technology and tie-ins between their mobile phones and cars, Zenios said. Customers, though, vary in how much they use in-car systems. Also, users are less forgiving of technological mishaps from behind the wheel.
"As long as you manage technology, it will be your friend," said Zenios, who worked on in-car telecommunications systems for GM, Daimler AG (DAI), and Bayerische Motoren Werke AG (BMW) during his 22 years with Motorola Inc. "The minute you do something for technology's sake, it may not work out very well for you in automotive."
Chrysler, majority-owned by Italian carmaker Fiat SpA (F), "didn't reinvent the wheel" in developing features such as the navigation system within Uconnect, said Consumer Reports' Fisher, a former engineer for Detroit-based GM.
"The Chrysler system is probably the best one that I've used," Dave Sullivan, a product analyst for Tustin, California- based AutoPacific Inc., said in a telephone interview. "It's the fastest, it's got great resolution. The screen has nice, big buttons on it. It doesn't crash. The navigation is simple."
Like Bill Ford, AutoPacific's Sullivan attributes Ford's first-mover strategy for the automaker's ills in consumer surveys. The namesake Ford brand slid to 27th from 23rd a year ago and fifth in 2010 in Westlake Village, California-based J.D. Power's initial-quality study that was released in June.
"There's a learning curve for all these automakers," Sullivan said. "They've never really been software people before. They've always been engineering nuts and bolts. This is what happens when you want to be first."
The Cadillac CUE system debuted in the XTS and ATS sedans that GM introduced this year and is spreading throughout the brand's lineup. The world's largest automaker equipped its touch controls with haptic feedback -- meaning that the car's buttons vibrate when touched -- in an effort to outdo Ford's systems.
"The haptic feedback is nice, but we found that you still have to take your eyes off the road to make sure you're tapping the right spot," Jim Travers, a Consumer Reports associate editor, wrote in a June 22 review of the XTS. "Having to relearn how to use a button just for the sake of looking 'high tech' -- as there are no functional advantages to these flush controls -- is misplaced progress."
The CUE system's buttons are "fussy" and flipping through screens is a "chore," Tom Mutchler, a Consumer Reports engineer, said in an Oct. 19 review of the ATS. "That's really something of a shame, because the annoying controls detract from what otherwise is a really rewarding car to drive."
GM is taking a different approach from Cadillac for Chevrolet, its high-volume brand, with a system branded as MyLink, and for Buick and GMC with IntelliLink. With MyLink, GM uses a concept it calls "smart phone, dumb radio," in which the in-car system embeds features from the phone and amplifies them over a display, said Scott Fosgard, a GM spokesman.
"If you set CUE aside, GM's got a system in the Sonic and the Spark that's pretty competitive," said AutoPacific's Sullivan, referring to MyLink.
In addition to competitive pressures, U.S. automakers are being scrutinized by regulators led by Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, who has said his department is on a "rampage" against behind-the-wheel distractions.
The government issued guidelines this year to quell in-dash distractions, recommending that no task for drivers take longer than two seconds and that cars be stopped and in park before users can enter navigation commands or use social networking sites such as Facebook (FB) and Twitter. The guidelines stop short of recommending limits on devices.
Chrysler put its latest Uconnect system in new pickups introduced late this year with a feature intended to curb distraction from texting while driving. A phone paired with the Uconnect system can notify a vehicle's occupants of a received text and "read" the message over the audio system. A reply to the message can be made audibly, using voice-to-text software developed by Nuance Communications Inc. (NUAN)
"I don't want the people touching the phone no matter what," Zenios said. "Keep it in your pocket or keep it in your purse, and then let the system alert you in the right way."