The country stations around Nashville just aren’t doing it for me. I switch to a little Tom Petty instead by press a button and telling the car, “play artist, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers,” which it reads off a USB thumb drive in the glovebox. As I round a corner and toe down the accelerator into the next one, a text message arrives. Rather than groping around my pocket and careening into one of the black walnut trees lining this particular misty corridor, the car reads it back to me. Moments later, I ask the car to turn down the temperature to exactly 72 degrees. It complies with a blast of cool air from the center console.
The driving experience has officially gone digital.
It’s about time.
From Humble Origins
When I sat behind the wheel of my first car at 17, my foolish teenage impulse wasn’t to pour my meager savings into a supercharger, ground-quaking stereo or rims. Call me a geek, but I wanted a computer in my humble Grand Prix.
After pricing out the cost of a touch screen, computer, cabling, electronics to convert impulses from the steering wheel controls into computer controls, not to mention a power converter and controller to make sure my computer didn’t accidentally suck my battery dry when left on by accident, the dream of a budding tech journalist ended up steamrolled by the funds of a part-time employee at Kay-Bee Toys.
Flash forward to 2010, and Ford has pretty much built my dream for me. Car computers are no longer the domain of an elite society of geeks – they’re stock equipment. The second generation of Ford’s in-car computer system, MyFord Touch, gives car computing a Herculean shove forward, out of the realm of gimmickry, and into a role we may soon consider as indispensable as our precious AM/FM radios.
Silicon and software are not new ground for Ford. The Motor Company first dipped a toe into car computing back in 2007, when it worked in cooperation with Microsoft to unveil Sync, an embedded automotive platform to kick car stereos into the 21st century. It tethered with Bluetooth phones, played music off USB thumb drives, and responded to voice commands, too. While MyFord Touch performs many of the same features, advancements in the user interface and a slew of brand new features bring the car computer closer than it has ever come to a real-life incarnation of David Hasselhoff’s talking Trans Am – KITT.
Sync understood about 100 voice commands. MyFord Touch now handles 10,000. A “flattened” command structure also means you can request specific functions – like playing your favorite artist – in one breath, rather than telling it prompting it to control your music, then prompting it with “artist,” then the actual name. A single “play artist, Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” will work right from the start.
The tiny LCD screen of Sync has been replaced with an 8-inch, touch-screen monster in the center console, and it’s joined by two smaller LCDs that flank the speedometer, responding to directional buttons on the dash. I might browse my music collection on the touch screen while in park, request specific songs by voice as I drive, then jump to the next song with a single button press from the wheel.
This is a computer built for a car, not a car stereo on steroids.
Despite control over climate, cell phones and navigation, MyFord Touch still makes it primary appeal to media moguls – the type of folks with MP3 collections that span multiple hard drives, earbuds glued into their ears, and an instant scowl when you mention the letters RIAA. And it does it by playing just about every form of music under the sun.
MyFord Touch does AM/FM radio. It does HD radio. It does Sirius radio. It does CDs, media off USB thumb drives, A2DP Bluetooth, anything you can shove through an analog input, and standard SD cards. You can even feed in composite video and watch video off a portable DVD player or iPod (with the right accessory) on the center screen. Ford tucks all these unsightly inputs, including two USB jacks, a trio of red-white-and-yellow RCA jacks, and an SD card reader, into the center glove box, where they remain accessible but hidden.
My 17-year-old self would have been content crawling into the trunk to boot up a heat-belching Pentium, navigating with a trackpad, and crawling through half a dozen Windows menus to fire up some Smashing Pumpkins. But this is a computer for drivers, not video game addicts with driver’s licenses.
MyFord Touch boots up the instant you start the car, taking only a moment to reach the critical home screen. By the time you’re reading to put the car in drive, you’re ready to enter commands.
Every function – entertainment, phone, navigation and climate – takes its own color and its own corner of the center touch screen. These fundamental categories adopt the same colors on the right-hand in-dash screen. After time, the colors and their associated meanings seep into your brain, making these menus quicker, in conjunction with icons, to thumb through without really reading as you take your eyes off the road.
Color coding makes getting acquainted with MyFord much simpler, but we’re not ready to call it a completely manual-free or iPhone-like experience just yet. The “information” button, for instance, serves as a catch-all for odds and ends that fit nowhere else, like Sync Services and ambient lighting control. Some tweaks require probing deep into menus, even after nailing the right category. Notifications (“Passenger door ajar”) sometimes pile up in the left-hand dash screen, forcing you to click through them all before you can see vitals like fuel economy or the digital tachometer.
Unlike the latest generation of digital devices, like the iPad, which responds to the lightest touch thanks to sensitive capacitive touchscreen technology, the 8-inch display on MyFord uses an old-school resistive screen, which sometimes requires quite a prod to register. On the up side, Ford picked brilliant screens that showed a remarkable resistance to fading out in the sun.
Michael Knight spoke to KITT using natural language. “KITT, run a scan on that trailer for explosives,” was all a younger Hasselhoff had to say, and his will was done. No wonder some of us still swoon over black Trans Ams.
MyFord Touch hasn’t reached that impossibly high form of interaction, but with 10,000 commands, basic interactions become far more intuitive. For instance, a less-fussy computer now recognizes “dial” and “phone” the same way. I can enter an address by merely saying, “directions, one eleven southwest fifth avenue.” The computer recognizes phone numbers read aloud, so I can feed it a number, rather than relying on the limited list of contacts in my phone. It gets the numbers right with an uncanny, almost supernatural accuracy.
Still, users will inevitably run across some rough patches when navigating this prickly final frontier of computer input. A delay between pressing the voice button and being able to speak seems to slow down every interaction, so I gravitated towards other means when we wanted to accomplish something quickly. Trying to hold a conversation while occasionally dropping a voice command or two is sure to trip up a few inputs. Or your conversation. Say “Tom Petty” instead of “Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers” and MyFord is hopelessly lost.
Enumerating every last feature of MyFord Touch would require a list an arm long, but some require special mention.
The car’s ability to turn into a Wi-Fi hotspot, for instance, offers serious potential for road warriors. Plug in an AT&T USB Connect card, and you’re broadcasting Wi-Fi for up to five friends, with security to boot. Sure, a MiFi hotspot or even certain Android phones will perform the same function, but the plug-and-surf convenience has a certain appeal – as soon as Ford gets support from more carriers than AT&T, anyway.
Ambient lighting within the car – from the LEDs in kick panels to the doors and cup holders, can also be customized through the display. Red, blue, or Xbox green, just click the colored orb and it’s on. Necessary? Not at all. Awesome? Absolutely.
The more functionality you manage to cram into an in-car computer, the more road safety advocates will cringe. With text-related driving incidents already drawing heat to smartphones, the prospect of drivers fiddling with an entire in-car computer at 70 miles per hour can – and should – draw obvious safety concerns.
Ford’s emphasis on voice recognition remains its primary means of shoving eyes back on the road. By allowing drivers to control nearly every aspect of the MyFord experience with voice as a supplement to touch, even actions they used to have to perform with dials and buttons, like changing the radio or turning up the heat, become hands-free.
In practice, there’s no question that when you shove three color screens in front of a geek like me, I’m going to spend more time eying the dash and less time watching the bumper of the car ahead of me. At the same time, voice recognition largely seems to zero out the plethora of new distractions. For instance, I caught myself watching my instant fuel mileage shoot up and down on a little gauge on the dash, but I could also turn down the heat without lifting an eye from the twisty asphalt unfolding in front of me. Fiddle with my iPhone to start Pandora because it can play Pandora, but avoid fiddling with it for text messages because the car would read them to me. Gaze down at the dash to confirm entering a new destination, but keep my eyes on the road as I make all the corresponding turns, because the car reads them back.
Ford has wisely disabled a handful of features while in motion, like pairing a Bluetooth phone, which requires entering a six-digit PIN code. (We were irritated that there’s no way to bypass it allowing for a passenger to do the dirty work, though.) There’s even a “do-not-disturb” mode that will prevent the system from routing calls and text messages through to you. However, at the end of the day, these systems still require self control: If drivers let themselves get wrapped up in LCD screens and touch controls, they’re going to meet the same result as someone mesmerized by the pulsating equalizer on an aftermarket car stereo from 1999. No amount of technology can make an idiot any less idiotic.
The version of MyFord Touch you see on a car lot later this summer will not be the same version in the same car in two years. According to John Schneider, Ford’s chief engineer in charge of in-car entertainment, Ford intends to launch feature updates every six months. Planned features already on the horizon include the ability to decode digital video in formats like H.264 directly from a USB stick or SD card, and a built-in Web browser that will let you, say, park outside a Starbucks for Wi-Fi access and leaf through your e-mail.
Methadone for Tech Addicts
The days of buttons and knobs may well be in the rearview mirror. MyFord Touch won’t sway hot rodders with gasoline in their veins or tech neophytes, but for connected consumers who still feel disconnected the moment they buckle in behind the wheel, MyFord Touch may be the closest digital IV you can safely tap into.