The dollar and distraction costs of infotainment

July 1, 2015
It seems today’s infotainment systems can provide nearly every comfort of home for us to enjoy in our vehicles. My question is why?

Radio entertainment was, at one time, available only from large, stationary units that occupied a great deal of space in one’s living room. That luxury was enjoyed sparingly at first, and usually by the whole family at the same time. I imagine the same arguments about distracted driving dangers took place when cars were first fitted with radios, just as they are taking place now (for even more reasons)!

The driver is in control, able to add additional media sources or even upload directly to the system.

Pay no attention to the man behind the camera! Rear view mirrors are so much more today, often housing forward-facing cameras and other electronics.

While browsing through a huge retail store recently, the realization occurred to me how fast expensive items lose their value. Microwave ovens used to cost a few thousand dollars when they first hit the market. Some cost less than $50 these days.

Everyone has at one time or another purchased something only to realize in a short period of time that the same item isn’t worth anywhere near the price we paid for it anymore! In other words, we couldn’t sell what we bought for a “reasonable” price shortly after we paid a “premium” price.  It’s become typical for a new item to command a high purchase price when first brought to market, then in a short time we see that same item’s selling price rapidly decrease. Does the difference mean it was expensive if it now sells for much less than we paid? Does that mean what we bought has less value now?

I bring these questions to the table because at the same time that I was shopping, I started wondering if the depreciation of value could also apply to some aspects of automotive repair. It didn’t take me long to apply that concept personally. Without too much effort I can think of a few instances where I just had to have something for my car, and eventually the newness wore off (decreasing in value, to me anyway). In that short time its actual value also decreased!

Music to my ears
Here’s an example: While in the process of purchasing my first new car, I was offered a variety of audio systems with which the vehicle could be equipped. Some were factory-installed, some were not, but I chose the finest available (read: most expensive). I got the one with the most bells and whistles. In other words, it had the most features and capabilities of any of my choices and therefore, I figured those commanded a high price.  It was just expected. It had what was called something like theater surround sound, a customizable equalizer, the most wattage per zone, a huge amount of memory to store pre-set preferences and what was most important to me at the time — a six-disk CD changer! I paid a premium price for this new (at the time) luxury.

You see, music has always been important in my life. In addition to being an automotive technician, I was also an amateur musician, so having a premium sound system was important! At the time this purchase took place, I was spending a lot of time in my car traveling through areas without any radio stations (well, none I cared to listen to). So having choices of listening pleasure that were previously unavailable had great value to me. 

This tiny little camera has proven to be a valuable safety tool, preventing accidents caused by the inability to see behind the car
Much more than the AM radios my dad’s car came with. Today’s infotainment systems provide all the conveniences driver’s demand – entertainment, navigation, and safety to name a few.”
OTC #3395 Multi-Media Interface Tester (MIT) – (Courtesy Bosch Automotive Service Solutions)

When it came time for that car to be traded in, I purchased a vehicle from the same manufacturer. The sales representative assured me I could transfer that CD changer from the old car to the new so that I could save some money on the sound system, but he was wrong. The unit connected electrically and would physically fit where a changer was intended, but it simply would not work. I found it worked just fine in the model year before the current year, but not in the vehicle I purchased. Eventually I recognized my best option was to purchase the upgraded radio with the built-in CD changer for my new car and to offset that extra cost by selling the CD changer that I’d already spent the time removing from the old car and futilely fitting to the new car.

Here is where reality hit me in the face.  That premium quality CD changer, although capable of fitting many brands of automobiles and of being mounted in a variety of positions and locations didn’t have anywhere near the value of what it initially cost to purchase. I tried various outlets in an effort to relieve myself of the burden of owning a CD changer that I couldn’t use, only to learn no one else wanted that burden either. Alas, I was left accepting the fact I got a lot of entertainment from that investment, and it really didn’t owe me a thing. In fact, I believe I got my money’s worth of enjoyment from that investment over the years many times over. Besides, would I return my new car, the one that the changer would not work in, just for that reason? Not hardly!

Bringing your living room to your car
Fast forward to modern vehicles and we now have what are known as vehicle infotainment systems. That conjunction is derived from joining the words information and entertainment. These systems are quite sophisticated and are the medium used to bring into the vehicle not only audio, but many forms of entertainment, and a wealth of information, which not too long ago, used to be available only from a stationary personal computer.

Yes, they offer a variety of ways to enjoy our sounds; AM, FM, XM, CD, DVD, USB, iPad, iPhone, Android, internet based (Pandora, etc.) and the list goes on! Today’s infotainment systems also provide us maps and navigation and may even suggest to us how we should drive. Well, they redirect us when we aren’t on the path we pre-programmed. We’ve all heard, “Recalculating,” through the vehicles speakers. I can use my infotainment system to keep rear-seat occupants distracted by playing movies that they can see on screens made for non-drivers.

I can even pair my smart phone’s capabilities via the vehicle’s Bluetooth so calls can be made and answered through the vehicle’s microphone and heard through the vehicle’s speakers. This is called hands-free operation (and lately, voice-to-text capabilities allow for that to be done hands free, too). Doing these otherwise may be illegal, and I can attest to how distracting even the hands-free methods are, but so far, they haven’t been outlawed anywhere, to my knowledge.

Infotainment systems can even give us news about up-to-the-minute events happening anywhere in the world. They are integrated with other systems throughout the vehicle like lane management, anti-collision, parking assistance, active suspension, and so on.

More than entertainment
Heck, with some systems I can see what the rear-facing backup camera might be able to show me. Its lens is usually located strategically to display what I can’t see in my rear-view mirror or when I’m turning to see if there is any danger while backing up. I’ve seen certain systems place imaginary lines on the display that imply where your vehicle will end up if you backed up with your steering wheel turned the way it is presently, and those lines “move” if you turn your wheel in any direction!  I know a few drivers who could benefit from such help, but probably would continue to back up the way they do now even if they had this luxury! I could write many more pages about the various infotainment systems and capabilities available today but I have a fear;  I’m afraid that of which I wrote about today may already be obsolete by tomorrow! 

Tech using OTC tool
SPX # EL-50334-20 Multi-Media Interface Tester (MIT) – (Courtesy Mitchell 1). This special tool is offered under different names but is essentially the same. Before you buy one, though, consider the market you serve and the potential for rapid obsolence.

I can say with a certain amount of confidence that the reliability of modern infotainment systems far exceeds the reliability of just about any other system on today’s cars. Once outside of the dealership environment and out of warranty, it seems there are little to no failures. I mean, how often do your customers ask about repairing their infotainment systems? The only times I’ve been asked are when a child had partially deposited a peanut butter and jelly sandwich in a DVD tray, and once when some overflow from a console’s change tray had entered the radio face. What about updating those systems?  Have you had to do much of that? Not hardly.

I suppose it’s possible another reason for the lack of complaints may just be the newness has worn off and now the wiz-bang options are ho-hum, obsolete or maybe they are just not used anymore. Much like the fabulous capabilities VCRs had, but no one used. We simply put in the tape and hit PLAY. All the options of preprogramming months ahead of time, on various channels and at various times lost their luster after the first or second power outage!

Reliable, yes they are. In case you are seeing more problems with infotainment systems than the shops that I deal with, you would probably wonder if you could obtain some tools to help you determine where those problems might lie. There is good news! The mandatory-for-the-dealer tools are available to the aftermarket. In addition, there are other universal tools used to test almost any manufacturer’s system. Not too surprisingly, they look remarkably similar to the dealer tools.

All of these tools have a multitude of capabilities – not necessarily directly proportional to their costs – but enough to help almost anyone determine whether the infotainment system has a problem or if it may be something else.

Some can test the remote audio input and the system’s outputs, the USB connections to the head, the Bluetooth interface, the display and some even call home to see if there’s a problem with the antenna or vehicle network or the communication module (if external). 

But before you start shopping for your next tool-junkie fix, consider what your customer base might require of you and whether or not you’re willing to gamble on close to immediate obsolescence. I say that because of how fast technology advances. Some of the newer infotainment systems have self-tests requiring no tools to diagnose them. You can even reset some in case the software gets corrupted. That restores the software to the original operating mode, much like restore does to a Windows-based computer.

Consider the network
The most common complaints I’ve heard about infotainment systems I’ve resolved by fixing other vehicle problems. It’s been my experience that network-related problems, those affecting other systems as well, are the cause of faulty infotainment systems. Once I fixed the vehicle network communication problems, then the infotainment systems work properly again. I get some humor when I find the owners have ignored (or just put up with) other vehicle systems that have been faulty, typically for quite some time, then worry about the vehicle only after they’re unable to be entertained while driving. I usually hear, “That hasn’t worked for some time,” when discussing the other items I find inoperative along with their infotainment system that share the same network.

So, I suggest if you want to address your customer’s problems related to their infotainment systems that you brush up on your networking diagnostics. There are numerous classes and seminars focusing on network analysis techniques available from a wide variety of providers. I recommend taking networking classes regularly because so much changes with them and so rapidly that we need to keep up.

As always, it also helps to have accurate information about the vehicle’s network(s) and wiring diagrams to help guide you. You might spend countless hours looking for a problem and not being able to bill for your time without a good wiring diagram. That’s just not professional. Don’t forget to search for any Service Manual Updates (SMUs) to ensure you are working with the latest revision of the service manual!

It seems today’s infotainment systems can provide nearly every comfort of home for us to enjoy in our vehicles. My question is why? Why would anyone want to have all those comforts when they are so much more comforting at one’s at home? Why would we want to pay what it costs to have these systems in our cars – a cost that’s usually exponentially higher than the comparable home entertainment systems? Why aren’t we more focused on the task at hand – driving – instead of being distracted with one of these infotainment gizmos? Why does it seem each manufacturer tries to outdo the others by incorporating more and more bells and whistles when they, and we, are well aware that if they build it, it will break eventually? When they do break it may cost so much to repair that the system may have completely lost its value.

I realize those questions were asked rhetorically. I know it’s not our job to tell our customers not to drive distracted. Do you realize though, those folks are right beside you when you’re going down the highway? That’s just a reminder.

By the way, does anyone want to make an offer on a slightly used “premium” sound system six-disk CD changer?