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Flash Over Function Hurts Ford

The Ford Motor Co. has steadily been falling in quality and safety rankings, due in part to the MyFord Touch dashboard system. Ford has launched a major upgrade to the touchscreen system, which may very well take care of all the bugs. But a lot of damage has been done to the brand at a time when Ford should be celebrating.

Ford was one US auto company that did not take a bailout from the US government when the auto industry was flailing. In 2009, Ford's stock was $1.98 per share; it has since risen to more than $12 per share. Ford CEO Alan Mulally — who is credited for the turnaround — is being rewarded handsomely. Mulally recently earned more than $34 million when stock he received two years ago vested this week.

The sleek-looking dashboard touch system was one of the ways Ford was going to leapfrog its competitors. But according to the New York Times and other media outlets, the system has been plagued with everything from booting too slowly to the entire screen going dark. (See: MyFord Touch: Not Ready for Prime Time.) What could have been a triumph for Ford is now a scramble. Ford has forgotten one of the fundamentals of auto making: what is tolerable in consumer electronics is not acceptable in an automobile.

Releasing a product quickly and fixing it later is a trademark of the consumer electronics industry (and, to some extent, {complink 3426|Microsoft Corp.}, which developed the MyFordTouch system). The Times reports Ford owners have spent hours at the dealership getting the program fixed. Aside from the time being wasted, the malfunction has become a safety hazard. Drivers have had to spend time looking at the touchscreen and navigating through several layers of selections before getting to the correct one. In addition, many mission-critical applications, such as navigation and speed, haven't worked correctly.

The damage goes deeper than simple bugs. When one aspect of a system works incorrectly, user confidence in the rest of the system erodes. The dashboard is the driver's “control tower” for the automobile, and if that doesn't work, it reflects negatively on overall system quality.

I've had the opportunity over the years to interview Tier 1 auto suppliers — the companies that assemble the subsystems that go into cars. One such vendor told me that qualifying for Tier 1 was a long and tedious process that was frequently frustrating. A number of technologies that had been used in military and aerospace applications hadn't made it to autos yet because of stringent quality controls. I remember I was favorably impressed by what I heard.

The integration of consumer electronics in the automobile is in direct response to demand and is something that carmakers should respond to. What they shouldn't do is accept subpar performance just because a system's origin is in the consumer realm. In spite of the lessons unfolding at Ford, other carmakers intend to introduce touchscreens into their dashboards. (See: The Illusion of ‘Hands-Free’ Electronics and 2012 Mobile World Congress Takes Off.) The fusion of consumer and auto electronics is inevitable, and isn't necessarily a bad thing. But a car is not a good proving ground for software.

16 comments on “Flash Over Function Hurts Ford

  1. _hm
    March 7, 2012

    Real Time Embedded systems are quite common in industrial electroincs. They are sometime little more critical as compare to auto electroics and they work very well. Why is Ford facing so many problems? Perhaps it may be MS involvement.

     

  2. prabhakar_deosthali
    March 8, 2012

    It shows that either the Beta testing of this dashboard was not sufficiently done. Any software problems should have come out in Beta testing.

    If it is not software then then the production supplies must be of inferior lot compared to what was used in testing.

    All in all for a company like Ford , to earn such a bad publicity is surely damaging its long time reputation as one of the pioneers of Car industry.

  3. bolaji ojo
    March 8, 2012

    The one problem I had with the Ford hybrid electric vehicle when I test drove it last year was with the dashboard control. It didn't work fine and eventually I ignored it. I would not have been happy though if I had paid for the car only to have one of the tools in it malfunction to that extent. This affected for the GPS and other controls, including the radio.

  4. t.alex
    March 8, 2012

    It is the development process i think. They do not perform enough testing.

  5. Taimoor Zubar
    March 8, 2012

    I think the nature of the system is quite complex and it's not simply an embedded system. This is probably why Ford is facing issues in the initial phase. Firstly, there's hardware layer in the system. Then there's an OS layer and then the application that Ford is running on it. This is what makes the system so complicated and prone to errors.

  6. Taimoor Zubar
    March 8, 2012

    I wonder how Ford's marketing team would give consent to selling something with so many bugs. Didn't they predict that it would bring about a bad name for Ford? Or were they expecting that the customers would let go of these flaws as part of brand loyalty towards Ford?

  7. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 8, 2012

    @Taimoor: I think there is still a gap between auto companies and tech companies. Although auto companies have been integrating electronics for a long time now, I think software is still a challenge.

  8. William K.
    March 9, 2012

    When Style wins over Substance, We All Lose”. That sign has been on the wall behind my chair for quite a few years, and it is just as true here as there. Simple controls are much better for the automotive environment, and that includes not having things that are mechanically complex, even if the operator interface is simple. The real world automotive environment is almost as rough as the military environment, but the prices must be orders of magnitude less. 

     

    As for Ford selling cars with “buggy” code, my guess is that they copied the Microsoft attitude: “Who cares about the bugs, we may choose to fix them eventually”. (not an actual quote, but an easily immaginable one). The problem is that as code gets bloated more and more, it becomes much harder to keep bug-free. That is certainly not new information.

  9. Cryptoman
    March 10, 2012

    I think t.alex has hit the nail right on the head by pointing out the 't' word.

    Testing is critical to the success of any software project. This ciriticality becomes even more important in software applications that involve safety-critical systems such as cars.

    Software testing strategy has become more important for car manufacturers as the product they offer is becoming more and more dependent on software. Nowadays the brains of the car is referred to as the computer and is in charge of almost everything that goes on in a car. From tyre pressure gauge to on board diagnostics and electronic indicators, everything is controlled by software in a car. Therefore, if the software testing is not up to scratch, life threatening consequences that cannot be rectified with a simple reboot will be unavoidable.

  10. t.alex
    March 10, 2012

    TaimoorZ, definitely. Nowadays, any automotive system is a very complex system which requires proper interaction of mechanical, electronic, eletrical, software and many others. If a company does not maintain well the cohesion among these departments, this can be a problem too.

  11. Daniel
    March 12, 2012

    Barbara, any fault in any of the product can spoil the brand name.  Eventhough they are replacing or repairing at company cost also, customer's feedback are obliviously against that brand. So companies have to very cautious in maintain the quality of product through various measures before releasing to the public.

  12. FLYINGSCOT
    March 12, 2012

    I recently hired a Ford Fusion in the USA and when I sat in it for the first time I read on the dash “powered by Microsoft”.  I wondered what would happen when I turned the key.  Would the car start or would I see a big blue screen.  Thankfully the car did start and it was a pleasure to drive.

  13. Ariella
    March 12, 2012

    @Flyingscot

    Ha! Imagine if a car would freeze up like a pc tends to. That would be a very bad driving experinece.

  14. t.alex
    March 16, 2012

    FLYINGSCOT, that seems to be a scary thing 🙂

  15. JADEN
    March 17, 2012

    May be the dashboard system did not go through adequate testing before rolling out. With this, consumer would not be happy despite the fact that they are interested in having new technology in their vehicles, but automakes must ensure that the technology is ready for prime time.

  16. Barbara Jorgensen
    March 19, 2012

    I think Ford rushed the Touch to market to get a jump on the competition. Again, relying on consumer technology is dangerous in the auto market because consumer has always used the “roll it out then fix it” approach. Can you imagine if this system ran on Vista? (I would have abandoned Microsoft a long time ago if my business didn't rely on PCs rather than Macs.) Just as Ford seemed to be emerging from its worst period in recent memory, it blows it, at least in my perception. 

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