Just as US automakers are beginning to emerge from the doldrums, Ford Motor Co.'s quality reputation is taking a nosedive, due, in part, to its adoption of high-tech.
The MyFord Touch touch screen system, which replaces traditional knobs and dials on the dashboard of several Ford models, is experiencing frequent downtime, which makes drivers unable to perform such previously simple tasks as defrosting their windshields, according to an Associated Press article on MSNBC.com. AP says Ford is spending an unspecified amount of cash to send free software upgrades to its customers to fix the problem:
The unprecedented step underscores the urgency of the problem for Ford, which last month fell from 10th place to 20th place in Consumer Reports' annual reliability rankings largely because of MyFord Touch. Ford also plummeted in a J.D. Power quality survey earlier this year.
The situation reminds me of a similar misstep recently made by General Motors, which reversed its position on data provided by its OnStar navigation system. Originally, OnStar was set to collect user data on drivers who didn't even subscribe to the system. GM has since decided against the practice, following consumer outrage over data privacy issues. (See: Measuring the Value of 'Big Data' in the Supply Chain and A Tale of Two Companies & Social Media.)
Even though Ford insists it did not bring the touch screen technology to its customers too quickly, I have to disagree. Have you ever wondered why many touch-screen cellphones also have a keypad? Consumers have a certain tolerance for failure in consumer electronics because first, they've been conditioned to accept them, and second, consumer goods aren't commonly mission-critical. But if you live in the Northeast, not defrosting your windshield is every bit as dangerous as driving without your prescription lenses.
I understand that US carmakers are under a lot of pressure to become more competitive with foreign motor companies. But adding certain hi-tech bells and whistles isn't the way to do that. It is the basic design and performance of the car that really counts. Safety is the first priority, with energy efficiency/gas mileage coming in a close second. And until the MyFord Touch, Ford had a pretty good safety record, for all its other faults.
I did an article on automotive electronics a number of years ago and interviewed component makers that had to be qualified as automotive suppliers. I also spoke with auto company executives in Dearborn, Mich., about the performance specs electronics companies had to meet. They were rigorous. Component companies privately complained about being put through their paces, but once you win an automotive contract, you are set for a good long time because basic car designs don't change that rapidly. For their part, automakers are always looking for technology to improve vehicles and make them more user-friendly -- as long as they don't compromise safety. At the time of the article, auto makers were looking at technologies that could superimpose a map somewhere on the windshield so drivers didn't have to take their eyes off the road to get directions. This technology is already being used for military applications.
There are two lessons I learned while writing that story that still apply. First, carmakers (at least then) understand that what consumers will tolerate in their phones or their PCs will not be tolerated in cars. How many Windows updates and patches do PC users get every year? Do you really want to be patching your car?
The second lesson is this: If something simple goes wrong in a vehicle, confidence in the rest of the car erodes rapidly. A German automaker learned this when the electronic steering-wheel adjustment in one of its luxury brands didn't work. Sales of the brand dropped off, and the automaker scaled back the level of electronics in the car until all the bugs were worked out.
Here's the part that concerns me most about the MSNBC story: a Ford executives is quoted as saying that not everything within the touchscreen system can be tested. If Ford is willing to overlook that matter on the dashboard, what's going on under the hood? I'd rather not think about it.
It's too bad: I suspect Ford is trying to leapfrog its competition, and it has't worked. Chevy, on the other hand, is focusing on the Volt -- using electronics to improve performance and gas mileage -- and so far is creating mostly positive buzz. (See: Driving Miss Volt and Would You Buy a Chevy Volt?)
Back to the drawing board for Ford.