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MyFord Touch First Impressions

Voice Control

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.

Special Features

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.

Safety

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.

Upgradeability

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.

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