J.D. Power surveys a future industry landscape

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O’Neill: Power must evolve, too.

DETROIT — When cars drive themselves, will the importance of consumer surveys, and consumer-survey giant J.D. Power, fade?

Not at all, said Finbarr O’Neill, J.D. Power’s outgoing CEO.

Whether the future includes ride-sharing, autonomous vehicles or alternative vehicle-ownership models, “the consumer is at the center of it all,” O’Neill told a small group of reporters. Even if the stakeholders change and software companies enter the automotive world, “how the consumer feels and behaves will be important.”

But as the industry evolves, so must J.D. Power, now in its 50th year. It continues to survey consumers on the initial quality and durability of their vehicles, as well as their satisfaction with the sales process and service work done at dealerships, among other facets of their vehicle-ownership experience. But how it does those surveys, and when, is changing.

More timely surveys

In 2013, J.D. Power abandoned its lengthy printed surveys. Now it uses registration data to contact vehicle owners. If they respond, they are directed to an online survey. That simplifies the process somewhat; if a consumer says their car or truck doesn’t have a CD player, the survey skips the usual follow-up questions.

But that’s not enough, said O’Neill.

In a fast-moving market, he said, it soon won’t suffice for J.D. Power to issue annual reports on topics such as initial quality. More-frequent reports would match the industry’s having moved away from a model-year approach that assumed vehicle launches occurred in the fall.

And is it possible to do real-time surveys? Not by asking drivers to text from behind the wheel, of course, but by finding a way to get more immediate feedback on new technologies.

Kristin Kolodge has the ungainly title of executive director of driver interaction and human-machine interface for global automotive at J.D. Power. That means she is the data guru charged with surveying consumers about their experiences with features that assist drivers, such as blind-spot detection warnings, as well as with vehicles that do more of the driving automatically, from adaptive cruise control all the way up to Level 5 autonomous cars, which may not have a steering wheel.

Some of her findings relate to features on vehicles. Blind-spot warning systems, she said, are at “the top of the charts” by a wide measure in terms of what consumers like and therefore want. Lane-keeping systems and lane-change warnings, not so much. Consumers aren’t always clear if those are on or working, which reduces their popularity.

Other findings offer insights into not just new technologies, but how they are sold and delivered. “Manufacturers who are explaining” how their technology works in ways that get through to buyers “have a higher level” of acceptance and satisfaction, Kolodge said.

How consumers react to those new technologies matters, because “it’s all building up to that next level” of autonomous vehicles, she said.

As part of J.D. Power’s involvement on that path, it plans to release a white paper within a month on the issue of autonomous vehicles and litigation. “If you’re in an accident” while riding in an autonomous vehicle, said Kolodge, “how would you like things resolved?” In the courts? Through another route? By asking both consumers and lawyers, J.D. Power wants to “see how the litigation system might change.”

Failures vs. DTU

O’Neill won’t be around to review the surveys of passengers in autonomous vehicles. He will retire in March, when he turns 66. (A successor has not yet been named.) But he’s already seen lots of changes during a career that included stints at Toyota, Mitsubishi, Hyundai and Reynolds and Reynolds. The two most striking, he said, were the quality of vehicles and consumers’ expectations.

When a mechanical part broke on his first car, a 1976 Chevrolet Nova, it took two weeks to get it repaired. Mechanical malfunctions used to pop up regularly on J.D. Power’s surveys. Not now. Instead, today’s surveys are rife with DTU complaints — difficult to use. “Even if it works as designed,” O’Neill said, if it’s not intuitive, consumers will ding the vehicle’s feature as having poor quality.

Engineers may disagree, but the one rule that has never changed at J.D. Power is this: The consumer is always right.

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