Ford has industry's highest infotainment pickup, but customers' love-hate relationship make that a mixed bag

In an interview with The Wall Street Journal published Sunday, Ford Motor Comp.'s (F) global product development chief, Raj Nair, revealed that his company would be reversing the decision to drop physical knobs from its vehicles in lieu of the touch-driven MyFord Touch.  The change will take place across the entire product line as individual models are refreshed.

I. Physical Controls Make a Comeback

Ford currently includes physical controls with MyFord Touch in some models -- such as the Ford Focus and Ford Super Duty pickup trucks.  Other models like the Ford Explorer include only touch-screen climate controls with MyFord Touch.

While Ford insists that the majority of its customers liked the touch controls, consumer reviews groups blasted the usability and safety of touch-screen climate/audio controls.  The issue was further stressed when Ford's automotive operating system began to experience reboots, which would lock up the climate control system, potentially leaving customers without heat on cold days (or without cooling on hot days).

Ford has fixed that problem (which reportedly involved issues with the Bluetooth syncing process, which triggered an OS crash and system reboot), and has been diligently updating the OS.  However, the consumer reviews groups have not eased up on their criticism of Ford's approach, even as MyFord Touch has gradually improved.

Knobs are making a comeback in MyFord Touch vehicles. [Image Source: Ford]

Mr. Nair insists that the infotainment system is quite popular and that the changes are more of a tweak, as physical buttons offer faster adjustments than touch screen controls.  He comments, "The satisfaction is higher on the vehicles equipped with MyFord Touch than without.  We've been able to spend a lot of time with customers to find what exactly are the areas that are bothering them."

II. Customers' Love-Hate Relationship With Infotainment Hits Ford Hard

According to Ford's analytics, it sells SYNC and/or MyFord Touch on approximately 79 percent of its vehicles, versus Honda Motor Comp. (TYO:7267) and Toyota Motor Comp.'s (TYO:7203) whose rival infotainment systems have only around 40 percent pickup, according to Ford.  MyFord Touch, however, had a narrower lead, selling on only 55 percent of vehicles.

The company also conducted a survey in which 53 percent of 2013 Ford Escape owners cited the touch screen infotainment system as a key factor in their purchase.  Ford claims its rivals' vehicles with touch screens have a rating closer to 22 percent in terms of consumer buying influence.

Ford's system has a higher pickup rate than rival systems, hence weights negative reviews of infotainment heavier. [Image Source: Ford]

Mr. Nair comments, "Ford has launched 60 new technologies the past few years and they are helping attract many new customers in important markets such as the coasts.  SYNC and MyFord Touch are key parts of our innovation strategy, and not only bring more new customers to our brand, but help deliver higher satisfaction with overall vehicle quality."

The WSJ offers an interesting observation on why Ford has been hammered so hard in consumer issues surveys -- and why it might be hammered yet again, despite improvements to MyFord Touch.  The publication points out that as Ford's adoption rate for the technology is much higher than competitors, more of the customers responding to reviews surveys have an infotainment system and hence a new thing to complain about.

Thus the consumer reviews may be somewhat unfair comparing apples (rivals' cars which mostly have no infotainment system) to oranges (Ford's cars which mostly come with an infotainment system).  Still, the reviews -- along with Ford's numbers -- do seem to clearly illustrate one thing.  Consumers have a love-hate relationship when it comes to infotainment.

III. Safety Questions

But what about safety?  

Ford says MyFord Touch reduces distraction by baking utilities customers would otherwise do on their smartphone into the dash.  But some studies have suggested that hands-free/infotainment technologies do not reduce driver distraction.

The latest study by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety suggests drivers are at least two times more distracted behind the wheel when using hands free technologies (like MyFord Touch/SYNC) to send text messages or call, than those who abstained.  The study worked by measuring baseline reactions, then measuring reactions in a driving simulator, first not using a cell phone, then using a cell phone with hands free technology.

The study's authors write, "Just because a new technology does not take the eyes off the road does not make it safe to be used while the vehicle is in motion."

The study is most critical of text-to-speech dictation features (which fortunately aren't currently in SYNC/MyFord Touch).  Comments the authors, "There are in-vehicle activities, such as using a speech-to-text system to send text or e-mail messages, which produced a relatively high level of cognitive distraction."
Driver stress
MFT users in North Carolina could soon face tickets. [Image Source: DataTerra]
Much to Ford's chagrin, AAA President and CEO Robert L. Darbelnet is among the groups pushing for a ban on in-vehicle hands-free technologies, commenting, "It's time to consider limiting new and potentially dangerous mental distractions built into cars, particularly with the common public misperception that hands-free means risk-free."

The first in-vehicle hands-free technology ban to pass was instituted in the state of North Carolina.  However, a lawsuit has put its implementation on hold.

Such a ban could make it illegal to use MyFord Touch or SYNC, hence making it illegal for some owners to adjust the audio or climate controls of their Ford vehicles while driving.

Sources: Ford [press release], WSJ [interview], AAA Foundation [distracted driving study]

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