Vehicles Aren’t Just Getting Older, They’re Getting Worse

Customers are having more problems, on average, not only with new technology, but also with factors many had considered to be solved long ago.

Frank Hanley

April 16, 2024

4 Min Read
Phone charger screenshot
Mismatched phone-charging pads, USB ports annoy vehicle owners.

Progress is a basic human expectation. As time passes and learning takes place, customers generally expect things to get better. That has certainly been true of vehicle dependability during the decades that J.D. Power has been tracking through its annual Vehicle Dependability Study (VDS).

For the majority of those years, vehicle dependability – as measured by owner-cited problems after three years of ownership – has steadily improved. But a key finding of the 2024 U.S. VDS is that dependability has deteriorated.

Further, the rate of deterioration is concerning. Previously, improvements were expected and generally realized, but comparing J.D Power studies across 90 days and three years, the increase in problems has escalated. In the past year, the rise in problems from 90 days to three years of ownership was 12%, while this year shows an increase to 17%. The five-percentage-point deterioration compared with 2023 underlines a problem that is only getting worse.

Surprising Findings

Given the industry’s trend, the unexpected acceleration of deterioration in vehicle dependability is surprising. Customers are having more problems, on average, not only with new technology, but also with factors many had considered to be solved long ago.

Not only are over-the-air updates problematic, but basic systems such as check engine lights also are causing increasing numbers of problems. Equally vexing is the fact that manufacturers’ attempts to use updates to resolve issues are, in some cases, making the problems worse rather than rectifying them.

Over-the-Air Woes

Manufacturers promote OTA updates as a means to enhance vehicles over time, but this feature is causing frustrations for many current customers. Problems include – but are not limited to –updates freezing mid-installation; rendering radios unusable; and erasing radio presets, forcing users to reprogram their infotainment. Lengthy OTA installation times, sometimes up to three hours in duration, add to the inconvenience.

Wireless device charging is also creating more than its share of owner consternation. In fact, the most significant increase in problems this year has been with wireless charging pads. As new phones are released, the wireless charging pads may not accommodate them properly or at all. Manufacturers must consider long-term usability when designing in-car features. While a charging pad may fit current phones, it may not be suitable for future models as they continue to grow in size or change in other ways.

Another issue observed this year pertains to USB ports. As technology advances, there’s been a shift from USB-A to USB-C connections. Many manufacturers originally designed vehicles with USB-A ports, but now with the prevalence of USB-C cords supporting newer designs, the transition has been problematic for vehicle owners.

This type of challenge perennially faces manufacturers. They design a vehicle with the understanding that technology will evolve, but often it becomes a matter of serving the customer now or serving the customer later. Typically, later takes a back seat to now.

Annoying Remains Annoying

Another intriguing observation from the 2024 VDS is the persistent annoyance associated with driver-assistance systems, which may even escalate over time. Despite the expectation that drivers will acclimate themselves to systems that beep, buzz or vibrate at drivers’ perceived errors, often they don’t. Manufacturers often suggest that drivers will “get used to” the feature prompting the issue, considering it a part of adapting to a new car. However, the study reveals that this adaptation often doesn’t occur.

Customers continue to find these systems bothersome even after three years of ownership. Alerts going off at inappropriate times remain a persistent source of frustration. In fact, over time, these annoyances may intensify rather than diminish, making customers even more irritated. The lesson to be learned here is: Once irritating, always irritating. The vehicle must adapt to the driver, not the other way around.

Ensuring that manufacturers grasp the evolving landscape of automotive technology is crucial. Vehicles now remain in service longer than ever, even as technology seems to evolve faster than ever. Considering customer expectations of factors such as frequent phone upgrades, manufacturers should seek to design vehicles capable of keeping pace with these technological advancements. Long-term planning is essential, rather than focusing solely on a single moment in time.

Solved” Problems

Perhaps even more surprising than the issues caused by new technology are the mundane problems the industry has addressed for decades that are cropping up in larger numbers. This year, owners encountered issues such as a malfunctioning check engine light or a door handle that fails to operate correctly. The re-emergence of such problems raises questions about why such basic issues are resurfacing.

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Many of these issues – increasing squeaks, rattles and persistent check engine lights – require time to manifest fully. While short-term quality remains vital, equal attention must be paid to long-term dependability. It’s disconcerting that despite expectations of improvement, vehicle quality seems to be deteriorating over time. This year’s study has been a learning experience for both manufacturers and customers, highlighting the need for vigilance in an industry where these unfortunate trends are emerging.

Frank Hanley (pictured, above left) is senior director of auto benchmarking at J.D. Power.

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