New auto tech doesn’t have to hurt quality scores

If anything was clear in the 2023 results of the industry’s annual yardstick of consumer dissatisfaction with new vehicles, it’s that the panoply of new automotive technologies continues to plague automakers of all stripes.

After posting the worst aggregate quality results in three decades last year, the industry found a way to perform even worse in 2023, according to J.D. Power, with an average of 192 problems per 100 vehicles, up from 180 in 2022 and 162 in 2021.

While continued production and supply constraints almost certainly contributed to this year’s dismal results, technology — and its failure to either work as intended or be properly and thoroughly understood by consumers — continues to hang like a millstone around the industry’s collective neck. And the problem, which has plagued the industry now for several years, is not getting better.

J.D. Power took pains this year to call out automaker efforts to “improve” some basic vehicle functions such as door handles by adding technology, resulting in added problems where relatively few had existed before.

Why would automakers even pursue such strategies, knowingly adding cost and complexity to their designs and potentially introducing user confusion? It could be an effort to improve aerodynamics to help meet tightening fuel economy standards, certainly. But more likely, it is to allow an automaker to be perceived as a “technology leader” in the marketplace and thereby be able to command higher price premiums and profits.

Is this a smart strategy? The answer may depend on how you balance record industry profitability against abysmal initial quality scores.

It’s worth noting that dealers have a largely uncredited role to play in these results every year, especially when it comes to new technologies. Every new-vehicle owner who drives off the lot without a full understanding of their purchase’s capabilities and functions can add multiple problems to the tally. Automakers pay dealerships to make sure their vehicles are properly demonstrated, but too often that work falls to commission-based salespeople, who are perversely incentivized to move on quickly in search of the next customer.

It’s vitally important that this industry find a way to turn around the survey’s trend line. To do so, automakers might first ask product planners whether all of this new technology is worth the cost.