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MyFord Touch: Not Ready for Prime Time

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.

24 comments on “MyFord Touch: Not Ready for Prime Time

  1. Ariella
    November 7, 2011

    From what I've seen, Consumer Reports  takes a negative view of these technological advances in cars. see http://news.consumerreports.org/cars/2011/09/the-connected-car-video-new-services-pit-convenience-against-safety.html

  2. AnalyzeThis
    November 7, 2011

    @Ariella, that's a good link, and I do agree somewhat on their overall concern.

    This is a tough one. On one hand, it is clear consumers want more connectivity built-in to their cars. On the other hand, certain features could truly affect consumer safety: besides the obvious problems associated with distracted driving, you certainly wouldn't want someone to be able to defrost, as Barbara mentions.

    I think it's very important to ensure that implementation of such control schemes will not potentially leave the driver unable to perform certain crucial tasks. It's fine if they can't play MP3s, but if they can't access basic, expected features that have been standard in cars for 10-20 years, that's a big problem.

    All this being said, I think there are less issues in regards to putting technology into the backseats of cars to keep kids entertained. If anything, the ability to keep kids occupied and entertained may result in increased driver safety!

  3. Eldredge
    November 7, 2011

    Based on past experience, I would be wary of touch screen technology in anything more important than a handheld game or small appliance. In an automobilr appication, I expect a 10 year life at a minimum for essential devices. I think your article title says it all.

  4. Ariella
    November 7, 2011

    @DennisQ Car manufacturers have included the option of built in devices for the entertainment of those in the backseat for quite a few years now. I've made do without it as a parent, but I can understand the attraction for those constantly badgered by “Are we there yet?” or the bickering that tends to ensue when children are bored of sitting for so long.

  5. mfbertozzi
    November 7, 2011

    Often, while I am hearing about tech for introducing entertainment media inside cars, attitude in welcoming innovations, becomes concerns on risks. No to say driver needs full silence around him to avoid 100% incidents, but any source of possible deviation of driver's focus, even for only a bit, could be evaluated in depth. Maybe in case of long travel, right way should be public transportation, but sometimes it is not doable due to lack of connections.

  6. Ariella
    November 7, 2011

    Sure, distractions of any kind can compromise safety. That's why some point out that drivers should not speak on the cell phones even if they are hands free. The conversation itself can divert the driver's attentions. Another thing that studies find is that, though people acknowledge the dangers of drowsy driving, many still admit to doing it. 

  7. mfbertozzi
    November 7, 2011

    Thanx Ariella, I agree and definitely drowsy driving is indipendent of tech evolution. It could be very interesting to know for example correlation between number of cell phones on the market (sold to end users I mean) and car incidents happened during same timeframe. I don't if anyone, for instance, has ever launched that kind of investigation.

  8. _hm
    November 7, 2011

    It is ok to introduce new technology to gate edge in market. However, many a time, new concept is pushed too hard and testing and quality gets secondary treatment. In this case, products gets tested on field and it becomes very costly for company. Product designer should get proper time for design. All other department should help them for this new implementation.

     

  9. Daniel
    November 8, 2011

    I think, Ford has not tested the software thoroughly.  For software exceptions can be happens at any time, whenever they encounter any interrupts, so they have to make sure that the software is capable to handle all types of interrupts and exceptions.  Verification and Validation has to be done during Alpha and Beta releasing phase.

  10. Jay_Bond
    November 8, 2011

    Ford needs to focus on styling, reliability, safety and fuel consumption. Yes, having the latest gadgets in your car is a great thing and makes some people envious that they don't have the set up in their car. The issue is when these new electronics have serious faults and failures. When key vital operations can't be run due to system errors, consumers have a big issue. When key features fail, the view of the entire car becomes garbage and troublesome.

    Ford needs to focus on the majority of consumers concerns; fuel consumption and safety. Work on those two factors and Ford will be successful. That is unless they try and sell a box on wheels.

     

  11. DataCrunch
    November 8, 2011

    You have to at least hand it to Ford for taking the initiative of being a technology leader in the automotive space.  I do agree that more testing should have taken place as it seems the issues that are arising are not obscure ones, but obvious ones.  I also agree that there should be a combination of touchscreen and manual buttons in vehicles and not all or nothing.

  12. Damilare
    November 8, 2011

    Your right dave, Ford might have taken a big step in car gadget technology but from a customers point of view, safety, fuel consumption and style is what i feel should be of great importance,  other things should build on these basic platform. i know its a big competition for car companies but ford needs to consider a customers view of an ideal car.

  13. Susan Fourtané
    November 8, 2011

    Ariella, 

    In the case of cell phone use while driving I agree on not using the phone if you have to hold it while talking on it. On the other hand, I see no danger in hands-free use. Why? Because there is absolutely no difference between the driver talking with someone in the car or someone on the phone.

    -Susan  

  14. mfbertozzi
    November 8, 2011

    I agree Jacob, it is one of the most important critical point even for several industries (aerospatial for instance) good results in terms of stability and minimun risks have been achieved. That said, issue could be raised on costs: how much does it cost? Hence, could be convenient for Car Makers, put in production that technology, considering (maybe) high costs for certification to transfer on the market?

  15. Ms. Daisy
    November 8, 2011

    I am a long time loyal Ford fan, having used Ford cars for many years. I am really dissapointed to hear about this rush to join the band wagon of touch screen electronics, and deviating from Ford reliabilty. I agree with all the people who believe the focus should be on safety and higher gas mileage per gallon.

  16. Anna Young
    November 8, 2011

    Dave, you're correct in saying that Ford should be given the credibility in being a technology leader in the automobile industry. Ford did right by providing these gadgets in the name of innovation and competition. I just think, extra care is required when testing these devices to ensure customer satisfaction. In addition, I think safety, reliability and fuel consumptions are of great importance to its customers, hence more focus is highly required in these areas too if Ford wants to compete effectively and further attract customers.

  17. mfbertozzi
    November 9, 2011

    Good post from Ms Daisy allows to outline one point more; car makers' investments in gadgets to introduce is good, but where we are with regard to “green”? Even some steps forward have been done for producing prototypes of green care, we are still quite far in terms of final products to bring on the market. Cars based on solar energy or rechargeable battery don't still allow a sufficient autonomy as per people need. Why investments are in gadgets instead of trying to finalize definitely green?

  18. FLYINGSCOT
    November 9, 2011

    Personally I believe a car's user interface should be big, bold and simple so as not to distract the driver.  I agree many modern cars' interior controls are bamboozling and I do not like them.

  19. Ms. Daisy
    November 9, 2011

    @Flyingscot, I cannot agree more!

  20. Nemos
    November 10, 2011

    I want to mention the following, in electronics we have three levels that its level applies different rules in production. For example, in military electronics applies the third level that means restrict rules in production comparing with the level 2 (consumer electronics like GPS navigator)So we have a problem because electronics used in car must fulfill the level 3 but consumer electronics level 2 that's why and the problem with the touch screen.

  21. William K.
    November 10, 2011

    I do keep hearing this noise that the automakers are under lots of pressure to put more technology into the vehicles. So who is putting on this pressure? I can assure them that it is not me. I really don't want touch-control anything in my car. Also, I don't want multiple level menues for any function that I might need to control while driving. In fact, I would really prefer to have quite a few less features in general. If the automakers are really interested.

    So it would be quite interesting if somehow we could find out who these people are who are demanding all of these features.

    The reality is that a car is not like a disposable piece of consumer-grade garbage, where it does not matter if it fails after a few weeks. Some of us do not get a new vehicle every few weeks, and product longevity is important to us. The marketing wonks should be made to understand that.

  22. Tim Votapka
    November 13, 2011

    No argument from me on that! The last time I bought a new car was 2001 and only just started using the cruise control 2 years ago.

  23. Barbara Jorgensen
    November 14, 2011

    Readers–glad I am not the only one to question the proliferation of electronics in vehicles. In fact, most of the electronics have worked very well–ABS; air bags — many of the safety features that are now SOP in most vehicles. Under the hood systems seems to work really well–it's the “cockpit” electronics that are the problem. I find GPS distracting (voice activation may cure that); cell phones a nightmare and I want nothing to do with touch screen dashboards. Lest I be considered an anti-technology heretic, the dials, knobs, buttons, LCD screens and everything else on the dashboard all work better thanks to good old electronics. A good point about people “clamoring” for more electronics–I don't know any of those people either 😉

  24. Houngbo_Hospice
    November 25, 2011

    “Readers–glad I am not the only one to question the proliferation of electronics in vehicles.”

    Technology is supposed to make our lives easier, but as they say “too much of something can become a nuisance”. Unfortunately, car manufacturers will not understand that, because they have to follow the technology race and make sure they are ahead their competitors. But they have to do it right to maintain their credibility.

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