Auto Navigation Systems: Too Complicated, Too Pricey, Just Plain Unnecessary?

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A factory-installed navigation system adds more than $1,000 to the sticker price of a car. Maybe that’d be worth it if the systems worked better—and if there weren’t cheap or free, arguably superior alternatives readily available via drivers’ smartphones.

According to a new J.D. Power survey, drivers aren’t exactly overjoyed with their flashy, much-hyped factory-installed navi systems. Overall satisfaction numbers are down, with an average score of 681 in 2012, compared to 694 last year, based on a 1,000-point scale. Satisfaction declined especially sharply in the “ease of use” category (down 25 points), which is ironic given that the entire purpose of these systems is to make car owners’ lives easier.

The most disappointing feature of all systems is voice activation, which netted a lackluster satisfaction rating of 544. Drivers seem to be frustrated with voice activation—and with navi systems in general—because, thanks to the ubiquity of the smartphone, we know there is better technology out there. “Smartphones and natural voice recognition have raised owner expectations across all vehicle segments, and manufacturers are not yet meeting these demands,” Mike VanNieuwkuyk, J.D. Power executive director of global automotive, explained via press release.

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The survey numbers show that drivers are generally more than ready to choose a smartphone app over a factory-installed system; 47% of new-car owners reported using a downloaded navi app last year, up from 37% in 2011. What’s more, nearly half of owners (46%) said they “definitely would not” or “probably would not” buy a factory-installed system in the future, so long as it was possible to display smartphone navigation on their vehicle’s screen. The reasons for using a smartphone for navigation include “free apps, up-to-date maps, and a familiar interface allow for quicker routing and improved interaction, including better voice recognition,” VanNieuwkuyk said. “Manufacturers have a window of opportunity to either improve upon the current navigation system platforms or focus on new ways to integrate smartphones.”

Automakers love the idea of factory-installed navigation because it represents a simple, standardized way to bump up vehicle sticker prices. Give the frustrations, though, it’s understandable why many drivers view the system as a pricey option they’d elect to skip.

Ford’s official navigation system, MyFord Touch, is one of the most popular to bash. “We’ve never liked MyFord Touch,” a Consumer Reports post from last summer states bluntly, before laying out a few of the reasons why:

MyFord Touch leaves the interiors of fitted models almost completely absent any conventional knobs or buttons. Instead, it offers a variety of different ways to enter commands: flush capacitive switches on the center stack, a big center touchscreen, steering-wheel controls, and voice commands. But none are well designed, and combined they make the cars feel really complicated—especially when trying to perform the most common audio and climate adjustments.

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Sounds frustrating. Even more so when the owner has the knowledge that he’s out over $1,000 thanks to a system that leaves him befuddled as to how to turn the darn A/C down.

A lower MSRP is a surefire way to attract more buyers, and one way automakers can cut back on the sticker price is to simply remove the darn navigation system. That’s one way that Nissan was able to trim $6,400 off the base price of the Nissan Leaf. The newly introduced S class 2013 Leaf doesn’t come with Nissan’s navigation system, in contract to the higher-priced SV and SL models, which have the system standard.

While there are many reasons consumers are reluctant to buy all-electric cars like the Leaf, the absence of a factory-installed navigation system probably doesn’t top the list. “Younger drivers especially don’t think they need a navi system,” senior green car editor John O’Dell told me recently. “It’s easy enough to get directions, locate EV charging stations and all via apps, not some $1,200 system.”

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I don't travel a lot but when I do and I need a navigation system I use my smartphone. I have Samsung and the graphics are excellent plus the voice navigation is very clear. If you missed the voice instruction it does have a graphic turn by turn instruction that's also very clear. The only thing is that it uses up a lot of battery power so I always have it plugged in while driving.


You have to be VERY careful using a navigation app from a smartphone, since 1) the graphics can be sometimes hard to read (unless you have a phone with a big display like a Samsung Galaxy S III and 2) GPS data can use up a lot of your data against your 3G/4G over-air download limits. That's why I prefer to use a dedicated portable GPS unit like a TomTom or Garmin, which have reasonably readable displays and you can get map updates easily over the Internet (many are sold with free lifetime map updates).