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Today’s bells and whistles can shock even the most tech-savvy motorists

A 2015 J.D. Power report found 20 per cent of U.S. owners never used 16 of the 33 technology features measured in the research firm’s survey.

Porsche Cars Canada

If you're car shopping today, and bought your last car, say, in 2005, brace yourself for future shock.

A wave of new technologies has transformed the way vehicles operate and how drivers interact with them. We're well past the day when a salesperson only had to explain how to work the stereo.

Here's just some of the tech that has been introduced or has become commonplace in the past decade: engine shutoff at stoplights, smart cruise control, automatic emergency braking, lane-departure and blind-spot warning, automatic parking and semi-autonomous driving functions, smart key fobs, infotainment suites that integrate music, mobile communication and Internet connectivity, navigation and vehicle readouts.

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All this has new-car buyers succumbing to technology overload.

A 2015 J.D. Power report found 20 per cent of U.S. owners never used 16 of the 33 technology features measured in the research firm's survey. The most ignored feature was the in-car concierge that can point to the nearest gas station or recommend restaurants, followed closely by built-in WiFi hot-spots, automatic parking, head-up displays and built-in apps.

The survey found drivers are more in sync with safety-related technologies such as blind-spot warnings, collision avoidance and parking assist systems.

"There's nothing more frustrating than not being able to get your phone to work in the car, not being able to figure out your favourite radio stations, or having bells and whistles [alerts] going off which you don't understand," said Blair Qualey, president of the New Car Dealers Association of British Columbia.

Qualey just took delivery of a new plug-in hybrid (he won't say what brand), and being exposed to new vehicles all the time, he considers himself tech savvy. However, the standard half-hour-long walk-around the vehicle left him reeling.

"It was like drinking water from a fire hose of information, going through that," he said.

The first month is critical. If drivers aren't comfortable with the technology after that, the survey said it's unlikely they would ever use it.

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While the survey was limited to U.S. customers, data from J.D. Power Canada's initial-quality surveys show this "soft quality" issue surfaces here, too, said J.D. Ney, Canadian manager of automotive research and consulting for the company.

Auto makers realize the experience affects how they are perceived by customers, since customers are likely to blame the car for any problems rather then their own lack of understanding.

"For the manufacturer, it represents strategically a really important component of their success," said Ney. "An owner who doesn't experience any problems is much more likely to be a loyal owner of that brand."

Auto makers recognize that dealers are at the pointy end of this problem. So they send trainers to dealerships to teach about new or refreshed models, some stepping up the emphasis on new tech.

For example, Laurence Yap, director of marketing for Pfaff Automotive Partners, said Porsche took Pfaff's sales, service and front-line staff to a training event at its California facility to embed the tech knowledge.

And Ford last year issued a new digital tool to help in advance of the vehicle being delivered. It allows staff to create a customized PDF report for the customer, highlighting features and options they're interested in, and providing links to instructional videos.

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Auto makers also make online tools readily available to dealer staff to remain up to date.

Nissan and its luxury brand, Infiniti, have gone a step further, making its Electronic Quick Reference Guide accessible not just to dealer staff but also customers, said Julie Daigle, Nissan Canada's senior manager for customer experience.

The guide, available in both desktop and mobile versions, links customers to short videos explaining how to use specific features. New owners are given a QR code that directs them to information for their individual model.

The in-person familiarization process is also flexible, said Daigle, and can last anywhere from 30 minutes – for customers who already know the brand – to up to two hours. Dealer staff use tablets to tailor the experience to the owner's eagerness to learn.

"It's based on the customer's needs and wants," said Daigle.

Ideally, dealers should reach out within a week to see if customers are still encountering problems, and offer an open-ended invitation to come back if necessary, said Ney. But there should be no mandatory "second delivery" session, which customers interpret as the job not being done right the first time.

There's a direct correlation between the time sales staff take with familiarization, and customer satisfaction, said Ney, adding that it's highest when the session takes 45 minutes.

"But even if the dealer takes about an hour, then satisfaction is still higher than if they rushed it – half an hour or less," he said.

Ney's final piece of advice: Don't let the salesperson pair your phone or program your navigation and entertainment system. Dealers are sometimes motivated to do too much in the name of good service, which leaves customers without the knowledge to do it themselves.

It's better for you to do it with their guidance, he said.

"That way, at least you've had more of a tactile experience that tends to lead to a greater understanding," said Ney.

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