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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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thank god
By BRB29 on 6/17/13, Rating: 0
RE: thank god
By cyberguyz on 6/17/2013 10:49:39 AM , Rating: 2
Ford's touch screen is very insensitive and can be annoying to use if you can't spare a lot of attention when poking at it several times getting to register the finger press. The voice interface helps but its speech recognition is so frigging kludgy that end up screaming at my car to change the temperature or channel. Microsoft really has no clue how to to do voice control interfaces.

RE: thank god
By BRB29 on 6/17/2013 11:01:23 AM , Rating: 1
Not only does the ford/ms voice and interface confusing and annoying, their button configurations and style is a hot mess. I find it funny that their cars are excellent but people hate the myFord interface so much that some would rather buy another brand. The new generation still has not fixed the problems. All they did was made a bigger touch screen with bigger icons.

RE: thank god
By amelia321 on 6/17/13, Rating: -1
RE: thank god
By Samus on 6/18/2013 12:13:36 AM , Rating: 3
This is one of many simple examples why Steve Jobs was not revolutionary and did nothing good for technological innovation.

Multitouch is cool and all (not that he invented it) but it doesn't belong on a mobile device (not that he invented that either.) The mainstream, chronic adoption of touch controls because of Apple driving it into the mainstream has made technology neither innovative or safe. We are human beings and we rely on our senses to do things. Our most important sense is touch. It is the one sense we all have, and one we can not live without.

Touch screen interfaces completely throw the sense of touch in the trash. We need to feel our controls, and if we don't, we'll rely on other senses to verify, senses that haven't evolved to do so.

RE: thank god
By Dukeajuke on 6/17/2013 12:56:43 PM , Rating: 2
You must mumble a lot or something. I have no problems using voice commands on mine but I don't use voice coms to change my climate system very often (I just hit the climate button and use the touch screen) Of course if you have your windows down or airconditioning blasted it may miss a command sometimes, but overall it is very accurate for me.

RE: thank god
By BRB29 on 6/17/2013 1:44:21 PM , Rating: 2
You must mumble a lot or something

No he didn't. He's not the only one who has problems with it. In fact, Ford has a horrible reliability rating mainly because of the myFord System. Look at JD Power and Associates survey if you want to read about it.

RE: thank god
By Flunk on 6/17/2013 3:35:40 PM , Rating: 2
It could also be accent, apparently it's terrible unless you basically have exactly the same accent they tested it against.

RE: thank god
By cyberguyz on 6/17/2013 5:12:48 PM , Rating: 3
Maybe. I'm English Canadian (no French) in Ontario.

My Focus may be having an issue when say "Temperature twenty one Celsius ay!" then turns around and bongs at me.

RE: thank god
By Pneumothorax on 6/17/2013 1:21:45 PM , Rating: 3
Try some of the latest iterations of idrive. Circa 2010 or so BMW put in much faster CPUs in their navis. Much better and responsive than the older ones. I personally hate Toyota/Lexus versions as they don't allow my passenger to make navi changes unless I pull over which is ridiculous nannying.

They all have issues
By CaedenV on 6/17/2013 2:35:04 PM , Rating: 2
Why can't car manufacturers offer an upgradeable car expierence? I mean, the average ownership of a car in my family has always been 10-15 years. we tend to buy them 2-3 years old, and then run them into the ground until they do not run anymore. Surely most people are more in the 5-10 year ownership camp, but even then the idea of having a car that long on the same hardware and software set seems like an absolutely terrible idea!

Instead, lets have a standards committee make a nice small form factor of hardware that is more or less universal and redily replaceable as newer/faster/cooler parts come down the line. And let's have that hardware run something like Android or Window Phone/Mobile so that as things change in the world of technology the software can keep up with it longer.

Also, lets split car tech into 2 distinct categories: One part controls things like the engine, HVAC, and safety features. This can be a closed proprietary system as none of that stuff changes from the day you buy the car, until the day you scrap it. Then we can have a separate panel which is the upgrade-able part which controls things like in-car music and movies, phone calls and communication, GPS navigation and traffic, media services like Pandora and Netflix, and stores things like maps, music, videos, etc. The HID (screen, mics, touch panel, steering wheel buttons, etc) can be made by the car manufacturer, but then the computer itself can be a cute little box under the dash with a bunch of ports on it. The way I envision this to work would be a main display which is controlled by the infotainment system, and then below that a very simple, elegant, short but wide display driven by the car that controls car specific things like HVAC, and car preferences like sport or eco modes.

It does not need to be overly complicated, and it can reuse most of the technologies found in today's cell phones, but lets not mix our infotainment system with critical systems, and lets not have our cars stuck in the year we purchased them when they will last longer than any other technical equipment we own.

RE: They all have issues
By BRB29 on 6/17/2013 2:39:33 PM , Rating: 2
It's obvious why engines/drivetrains are not upgradeable. Ford does offer to update the firmware for their myFord. I think I saw news of it being able to upgrade OTA in the future. Maybe that already happened. Even with the upgrades, it still kinda sucks.

RE: They all have issues
By name99 on 6/17/2013 3:30:15 PM , Rating: 3
A firmware update is hardly a solution.
Look at the things people are complaining about - unresponsive touchscreen, slow CPU. These require HW changes, not better firmware.

And it's not just the installation of HW that was crappy the day it was installed. Consider the cell system that these devices are interfacing with. You may think they are shiny and awesome today, with their support for LTE and 2xMIMO down, 1x up. But what about in five years, when the standard is LTE-Advanced, new frequencies have been added, and baseline expectations are 4xMIMO down, 2xMIMO up?

Things change in electronics, and they change fast. A company that is not willing to accept this and adapt to it deserves to go out of business. (Though sadly the US govt has apparently decided this rule does not apply to either US auto or finance companies.)

RE: They all have issues
By cyberguyz on 6/17/2013 5:28:01 PM , Rating: 2
The system in my ford doesn't have built in cellular transceivers. All cell communications is via bluetooth to my phone and the phone deals with LTE networking or CDMA.

The touchscreen can be calibrated with better driver software. CPU speed problems can be handled with better application optimizing and smarter programmers. (Don't get me started on this - the entire software industry has taken the express route down the crapper)

RE: They all have issues
By cyberguyz on 6/17/2013 5:19:11 PM , Rating: 2
Ford's Sync updates are freaking painful. Did one on my focus last Spring. Half an hour to download onto a flash drive (be sure to get new maps SDCard for your Nav from Ford or it won't install). One solid hour with your car idling (it will not install if the car is not running) to install it.

By Dukeajuke on 6/17/2013 10:47:08 AM , Rating: 1
I've been using Ford's 1st generation Mytouch in my 2012 F150 for over a year now and my experience has been great. I store my music on a 32GB USB stick (amost 3000 songs) and can call up each song by name using voice commands(or play them by genre or artist). In reality there would be no way to manage that much music in a vehicle without voice commands. I can send and recieve phone text messages, mobile apps such as NPR News and Pandora on my phone, get weather updates and radar, and use preset nav destinations - all using voice commmands. I can even watch DVDs (while in park). I guess I don't understand all the hate this sytem is getting. I can understand how for the less tech savy it could be a bit overwhelming, but those people probably should have stuck with the standard radio...

By cyberguyz on 6/17/2013 10:57:17 AM , Rating: 2
I have a very different experience on my 2013 Focus Titanium.

By CBRworm on 6/17/2013 11:11:29 AM , Rating: 3
My guess would be that people who are reading tech news on a tech site are more likely to be able to work the infotainment system than the general public.

By ranran on 6/17/2013 3:10:27 PM , Rating: 2
I would humbly draw your attention to the concept of cognitive distraction:

Banning Radios?
By othercents on 6/17/2013 11:40:56 AM , Rating: 2
Back in 1930s there was a movement to ban radios do to being a distraction to drivers however today the radio is an essential part of the vehicle. In the past we had only turn signals, radio, and AC/heat. Today we have many convenience items that make the drive more comfortable and make it easier for us to perform tasks while in the car. The most notable convenience item is the buttons on the steering wheel including bluetooth, volume, and cruse control which all are there to keep the drivers hands on the wheel.

I'm all for limiting interaction with all the extra convenience items, however you still need to adjust AC/Heat, volume, or even radio station while driving. Companies like Ford should lockout the display to only allow minimal adjustments while driving while also providing large easy to read buttons that someone could change at a glance.


RE: Banning Radios?
By Brandon Hill on 6/17/2013 12:02:07 PM , Rating: 2
One of the few things Saab got right: Night Panel:

RE: Banning Radios?
By Dukeajuke on 6/17/2013 12:59:11 PM , Rating: 1
Lol - so you think it's a good idea for car companies to lock ou the AC/Heat, volume and radio controls while driving? Do you even own a car??

RE: Banning Radios?
By theapparition on 6/17/2013 1:23:19 PM , Rating: 2
If you bothered to fully comprehend what he was saying, he clearly stated that many higher end functions should be locked out on the display when driving.

I'm sure you really like the system, but defend it as you might, the general public decided by a landslide that they don't like Ford's implementation.

RE: Banning Radios?
By tng on 6/17/2013 2:17:13 PM , Rating: 1
"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."
As othercents said there are allot of things that distract drivers. Should we ban singing with the radio in the car? Scratching an itch? Drinking a soda? Smoking?

How far will a bunch of people who only want to save us from ourselves go to make the roads safe?

Touch screens are dangerous
By kep55 on 6/17/2013 5:17:10 PM , Rating: 2
Ever notice the cockpit of a commercial or military airplane? Few if any touchscreens, but plenty of buttons and knobs. Why? Because a button stays in one place, does one function, and won't disappear. On my 2007 Saturn Astra, I can pretty much tune the radio, adjust the HVAC, run the cruise control, etc without taking my eyes off the road. That's because all the buttons for the functions haven't moved or disappeared.

RE: Touch screens are dangerous
By cyberguyz on 6/17/2013 5:43:26 PM , Rating: 2
That changes with the make of car you drive. I've had a lot of Toyotas. Controls were all in the same general places and moved in the same directions from 1996-2010. Also has a few Hondas - very similar to the Toyotas. Had no issue finding anything and every thing moved in the same directions and located in the same general locations. None of these had voice control or touch screens.

All lights (headlights, parking and fog) on turn signal stalk. Wipers - move down to turn to intermittent-slow-fast.
Door locks on doors.
Reading lights on overhead console.

On the ford:
Lights are on the console down where I often hit it with my knee.
Wipers - move up to turn to intermittent-slow-fast (opposite direction)
Door locks located in one place -- in the center of the dash next to the emergency flashers
Reading lights located behind my head between the doors (just try an reach up and turn them on!!)

Why is the ford such an oddball? I suppose to long term ford owners that the Jap cars would be the oddballs. It all depends on what you are used to.

Sadly for me I have 2 cars - A Toyota Venzas and the Ford Focus so I am constantly being challenged by the totally different driver interfaces of these cars.

RE: Touch screens are dangerous
By PaFromFL on 6/18/2013 8:23:31 AM , Rating: 2
I'm not a fan of touchscreens in cars, but at least in FL I don't have to worry about mittens rendering the touchscreen inoperable. A touchscreen could be made usable if they projected a display on the windshield, but I not sure how distracting that would be.

How did you find a 2007 Saturn Astra? I thought they only imported them in 2008.

By Stuka on 6/18/2013 1:41:13 AM , Rating: 2
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.

Funny, never had any problems like that with Bosch relays. Maybe some of the old ways are the best ways.

"Nowadays, security guys break the Mac every single day. Every single day, they come out with a total exploit, your machine can be taken over totally. I dare anybody to do that once a month on the Windows machine." -- Bill Gates

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