Why car companies (still) ignore customers
By Mark Hurst • July 28, 2023

A story has been making the rounds from The Verge about a recent JD Power survey of automotive customers. According to the story, people are getting fed up with all the useless tech in their cars. Survey results show that customers strongly dislike digital touchscreens in cars: they’re distracting, hard to use, and take up space that could be used for physical buttons.

Longtime readers will remember the story of MyFord Touch, the first dashboard touchscreen in consumer vehicles. My case study in Customers Included describes how Ford’s disastrous design process ended up creating a dashboard that hid important buttons – for controlling A/C, for example – behind a vertical panel with no raised edges. Consumer Reports gave the design low marks, pointing out that consumers weren’t safe driving in a car with MyFord Touch, since drivers would have to take their eyes off the road to find the buttons. Angry car owners took their Fords back to dealers in droves, costing the company a fortune, not to mention the intangible costs to brand equity and PR.

The MyFord Touch debacle was over 10 years ago, so it might be reasonable to expect carmakers to learn the lesson. Yet here we are in 2023 hearing again that consumers prefer safer, easier physical controls over the buggy, impossible-to-use digital interfaces that keep popping up in new cars.

Thus the central question of Customers Included still applies today: Why do companies ignore customers?

It would seem to make more financial sense to build products that customers actually want. Whether we’re talking about car dashboards or any other sort of product, a customer-pleasing design both cuts down on customer service calls and increases sales, as customers give positive word-of-mouth to friends. Brand loyalty, usage metrics, sales numbers, social media sentiment: all of these vaunted goals of big companies seem to be aligned with creating products that don’t completely suck.

And yet here we are. As The Verge story puts it:

more people are choosing not to use their car’s native infotainment controls. Only 56 percent of owners prefer to use their vehicle’s built-in system to play audio, down from 70 percent in 2020, JD Power found. Less than half of owners said they like using their car’s native controls for navigation, voice recognition, or to make phone calls.

More evidence of consumers’ dislike of digital touchscreens came from a study last fall by Swedish automotive magazine Vi Bilägare (also covered in Car and Driver). Researchers timed how long it took for a driver, while driving, to complete simple tasks. From the research:

Most [car] manufacturers are switching to touchscreens – which perform far worse in a test carried out by Vi Bilägare. The driver in the worst-performing car needs four times longer to perform simple tasks than in the best-performing car.

Out of all the cars included in the study, the top performer had no touchscreen at all. It was the 2005 Volvo V70, shown below:

Notice the physical buttons and dials, all easy to reach without taking one’s eyes off the road. No touchscreen in sight.

To review:

• MyFord Touch in 2010 showed that physical buttons are superior to touchscreens.

• Vi Bilägare in 2022 showed that physical buttons are superior to touchscreens.

• JD Power in 2023 showed that physical buttons are superior to touchscreens.

I could also discuss Consumer Reports’ 2020 review of the Tesla Model Y (“Drivers have to spend too much time with their eyes off the road to make simple adjustments on the screen”), the 2021 recall of Teslas with faulty touchscreens, and the 2019 Jalopnik story called Touchscreens in Cars Have Been a Failure. But you get the idea. Year after year, we learn that physical buttons are superior to touchscreens. Yet manufacturers persist in shipping an inferior product that consumers don’t want. Why?

One possible explanation is that customers prefer touchscreens when buying the car, and only come to regret the decision after the purchase. Maybe that was the case 10 years ago, in the early days of touchscreens like MyFord Touch. But these days? As The Verge article puts it, “If you’ve ever let out a string of curses while fumbling to control your car’s air conditioning because it’s buried under several menus in a dang touchscreen, you’re not alone.” Consumers today are less likely to be fooled by a touchscreen.

So again: why do companies persist in shipping what customers don’t want? Cory Doctorow (a recent Techtonic guest) took up the question in a provocative essay this week:

[Car] drivers hate all the digital BS, from the janky touchscreens to the wildly insecure apps. Digital systems are drivers’ most significant point of dissatisfaction with the automakers’ products. . . .

But even amid all the complaining . . . there’s still not much discussion of why the car-makers are making their products less attractive, less reliable, less safe, and less resilient by stuffing them full of microchips.

The reason why, he argues, is that car companies – and many other companies, too – are no longer interested in creating a good customer experience. Industry after industry has abandoned any pretense of making things better for customers. Instead they’ve embraced “digital feudalism,” a business model dedicated to controlling all aspects of the product, preventing customers from modifying or fixing anything, while charging customers monthly payments – a kind of rent – in order to continue to use the product. Doctorow points out Mercedes’ plan to charge rent on the gas pedal, unlocking extra acceleration for an annual subscription fee of $1,200.

A touchscreen, then, operates as a digital platform where features can be locked or unlocked by the company at will, depending on customers’ rent payments. Physical buttons, on the other hand, can’t be turned into rent. They only serve the customer, so they’re less attractive. In the upside-down world of digital feudalism, anything that serves the customers’ needs without providing the company with rent, or surveillance, or control is likely to be removed.

Once a company has a business model of charging rent to captive customers, there’s no more need to improve the customer experience. The only “improvements” are refinements to the exploitative model. As Doctorow writes,

Digital feudalism hasn’t stopped innovating – it’s just stopped innovating good things.

Digital feudalism isn’t a new idea. Back in 2020 I interviewed Joel Kotkin on Techtonic about his book The Coming of Neo-Feudalism, which made a similar point about changing economic conditions. Big Tech executives, he said, were taking the role of the aristocracy, while the programmers and lawyers and product managers serving Big Tech played the role of “clerisy,” being paid to preserve the rule of the aristocracy. Everyone else – that is, anyone not working in tech or a tech-adjacent role – would inevitably take the role of peasant.

Once you start looking, you’ll notice the signs of enfeudalization everywhere. Just yesterday Reuters broke a story about Tesla lying about the range of their cars, then suppressing customer complaints. (See also the Ars Technica story.) The cars’ digital readout of “remaining driving range” was subjected to algorithmic manipulations, showing drivers an impossibly long range as they got started on a full charge, then falling quickly to come in line with a more realistic estimate. The customer experience was digitally manipulated by a company to serve its own interests.

One way I’ve decided to resist creeping feudalization is to host a members-only Forum where we can discuss what’s happening in tech – without surveillance, without algorithmic nudging, and without shady monetization schemes that are so common in Big Tech. I hope you’ll join us and place your vote for at least one corner of the internet that’s not taken over by the feudal lords.

Join the Creative Good Forum.

Until next time,


Mark Hurst, founder, Creative Good – see official announcement and join as a member
Email: mark@creativegood.com
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