Scripps Howard News Service
June 22, 2012
“Escape” is a button on a laptop keyboard. It’s also a Ford. At long last, the automotive and computer worlds have collided as never before with Ford Motor Co.’s touchscreen technology, MyFord Touch.
The difficulty of manipulating the touchscreen has helped drive Ford’s ranking in the J.D. Power & Associates Initial Quality Survey to 27th out of 34 brands, down from fifth place in 2010. In its most recent survey, J.D. Power pointed to consumer demands that smartphones and vehicles perform a Vulcan mind meld while providing a voice-activated deck.
“Automakers and suppliers are working hard to meet those expectations with systems intended to make the driving experience safer, more convenient and more entertaining,” said David Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power. “However, the most innovative technology in the world will quickly create dissatisfaction if owners can’t get it to work.”
Ford is not alone in pushing the envelope to places envelopes should never go. BMW caught unmitigated heck for the complexity of its iDrive system that used Microsoft Windows CE software. When the system rebooted, the “Windows CE” logo appeared, perhaps reminding drivers of the joke that Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates started with his comments about what cars would cost if they were designed by software firms.
Consumers are a very unforgiving bunch. My unhappy memories of a 1986 Tempo compact sedan that left my wife stranded several times due to glitches in the emissions-sensing system have deterred any return visits to a Ford showroom. Then there was the family trip to Yellowstone National Park. There’s nothing like the smell of burning fan belt first thing in the morning.
To Ford’s credit, it’s trying to provide features that used to be exclusive to luxury brands. The voice-recognition software is the future of in-car communications. Car-to-car communications are headed our way, as is the self-driving car that recently tooled around Silicon Valley with a Google logo on its side.
In Mountain View, CA, the Computer History Museum thought highly enough of the Blue Oval’s achievements to enshrine Ford’s “Sync” in-car communications and connectivity system in its permanent collection.
The Sync system that preceded MyFord Touch was developed in 2005 as Ford sought to apply the Windows CE technology to affordable cars. If BMW was the technology front-runner, Ford considered itself a “fast follower.”
Sync debuted in the 2008 Focus, Ford’s most affordable car at the time, as a $395 option. Within two years, Sync became available in every new Ford. By early 2012, more than 4 million Sync-equipped vehicles were on the road. By 2015, that number is expected to grow to 9 million.
Announced at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show, MyFord Touch first appeared in the 2011 Ford Edge, with complaints about reliability quickly following. The 2013 Escape that arrived in dealerships last month features a MyFord Touch system that has been upgraded after consumer complaints. Ford sent software upgrades to customers in March, and marketing execs said 90% of customers with MyFord Touch have upgraded their systems.
But the issue goes beyond software. The question is how many distractions drivers can reasonably handle. For this driver, touchscreens are often a hindrance to “fahrvergnugen,” German for driving pleasure. Give me simple tuning dials such as those found on GM models.
Escapes—priced at $23,295 to $31,195 in front-drive or all-wheel-drive—don’t all come with MyFord Touch. Escape’s strongest claim is being the most fuel-efficient compact sport utility on the market. The 2.5-liter, 168-horsepower, four-cylinder engine is expected to cover 22 city and 31 highway miles per gallon. Buyers also have a choice of 1.6-liter or two-liter turbocharged engines.
Perhaps it’s a credit to automotive engineers that, for the first time in J.D. Powers’ 26 years of surveys, consumers are complaining more about audio, entertainment and navigation systems than in any other vehicle area. The problem with technology is the learning curve, even with supposedly intuitive touch pads. One dealer said teaching drivers how to use the MyFord Touch system took about 45 minutes.
In theory, that shouldn’t be too demanding for a person who must earn a license and insurance to drive two tons of machinery on a crowded highway at 70 mph. But, as Yogi Berra said: “In theory, there’s no difference between theory and practice. In practice, there is.”
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