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A Software Update for Your Car?

Ford reboots its infotainment system, following consumer complaints.
March 6, 2012

In the coming weeks, owners of certain models of Fords will be getting something unusual in the mail from the company: USB drives.

In our screen-surrounded world, the on-board computer systems in our cars are increasingly important to us. With a new car purchase, for many, it’s the first thing they show off. But we live in an era when even last year’s gadget starts to lose its aura of newness. How do you keep a gadget embedded in a ten-year purchase–a car–feeling new?

With a software update, of course. So if you bought a 2011 or 2012 model-year Ford containing a MyFord Touch infotainment and control system (there are about 300,000 of you out there), be on the lookout for that USB drive.  The Detroit Free Press reports that “consumer concerns about the system” had caused Ford’s cars to “drop precipitously” in Consumer Reports quality scores. This led Ford to promise an update back in November.

The update can be performed by drivers themselves, and it takes about an hour to execute. The car has to be running the whole time, so you may want to do this on your next long highway drive, unless you don’t mind babysitting your car in the driveway or curbside for an hour.

What are the fruits of that hour?  Ford sums it up, via the Detroit Free Press, this way: “Ford officials say they have made the touch screen and voice recognition system faster, more intuitive and simpler to read and use. The screen layout has been simplified. Common commands are easier to find. Responses are designed to be faster and less frustrating when trying to change a radio station, turn up the heat or get directions.” Not being frustrated when trying to turn up the heat sounds good.

What’s most interesting about the update, perhaps, is the way Ford is adopting the language of the technology business in promoting its car. Ford wants to catch some of the reflected glow of the sorts of companies that make our Most Innovative Companies list, like Apple, Facebook, and Google. (Only three transit companies made that list; two involved electric vehicles while the third involved space flight.) As one of Ford’s P.R. people phrased it in an email to Technology Review, “Operating like a technology company, Ford leverages software to continuously update and upgrade the driver experience, moving at a pace similar to that seen in the consumer electronics industry.” Ford, on its site announcing the update, puts it similarly, writing, “Like many innovative technology companies, we periodically release software upgrades to deliver the most up-to-date technology.”

The fact of the matter is, I don’t entirely trust a car company to fundamentally hack the problem of on-board infotainment UI, any more than I trust TV companies to hack the problem of TV interfaces. Much the way that I begin to think the iPad could be the brains of your TV, I begin to think we might be better off if an Apple or a Google came to own that bit of space on your dashboard that Ford users have been pressing in frustration over the past year. (Microsoft, actually, is already a major player in this space, and co-developed MyFord Touch. Could it bring some of that Metro mojo to its next-gen infotainment system?)

Some high-tech competition would surely be worthwhile in this space. To that end, Matt Hardigree’s recent speculation that Apple might be contemplating an “iCar” infotainment system is intriguing.

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