In recent years, "smart" technologies have come to phones, televisions and houses. And they're starting to become a regular feature of cars as well.
Ford has been among those car companies that have embraced such advances. Its Microsoft-developed Sync service, which connects users' phones to their cars and offers voice dialing, is now available on nearly all Ford models. And four models -- the Edge, Focus, Explorer and Lincoln MKX -- now also offer the MyFord Touch system, which is a basically an Internet-connectable touch-screen computer mounted in a car's center console.
Ford sees Sync, MyFord Touch and other high-tech features as a way of distinguishing its vehicles in the crowded auto marketplace. But the attention MyFord Touch has drawn to date has largely been negative. Since it debuted in 2010, the system has been heavily criticized for having numerous bugs and being generally unreliable. Ford's position in J.D. Power's quality rankings plummeted in large part due to such problems, and Consumer Reports advised car shoppers to avoid models with the system installed.
Now the company is trying to hit the reset button. Last month, it released a free update for the MyFord Touch software. The new version is supposed to be more responsive and easier to use. Consumer Reports has praised the update, saying it addresses many previous problems.
I recently spent a week driving a Ford Focus with the new MyFord Touch system installed. I didn't test the old version, so I can't say how much better the new one is. But my judgment is it still needs a lot of work.
The system's new interface divides its display into four quadrants, one each for the audio system, phone-related features, the climate control system and the navigation system. To access any of the four areas, you simply touch the appropriate label, each of which is located in a corner of the display. Within each area, you are presented with a list of subsections or an array of on-screen buttons that allow you to do things such as specify which audio device you want to listen to, access your phone's address book or get directions to a particular address.
The touch-screen interface is generally easy to use and navigate. In some cases, I wish the buttons or text had been bigger, making them easier to find and press while driving. But it didn't take long to get used to interacting with the system.
Still, there is an overarching problem -- it's not safe to interact with a touch screen while driving. To address this concern, MyFord Touch allows you to access many of its features through voice commands.
For simple commands, the voice control feature works well. I was able to use it to turn the radio on and off and have it tune into a particular station. I was also able to use it to turn the fan down and to access the navigation area.
But once I got beyond simple commands, the voice control system was much less reliable and much more frustrating to use.
For one thing, the system is not very flexible. Unlike the iPhone's Siri, which can understand natural language, Ford's system requires you to use specific commands. To navigate to a particular address, for example, you generally have to use the command "destination." If you tell the system you want "directions" to a destination, it won't understand you.
Worse, the system was dreadful at understanding street addresses. I don't have a thick accent, but it still took me nearly the entire 10-minute ride home from my son's school to get the system to recognize where I wanted to go. It not only misidentified the street name, but also thought I was saying "Anaheim" when I said "San Jose."
It wasn't just my own address that it choked on. Nearly every time I tried to enter an address verbally, the system failed at least once, whether or not the car was moving and making noise. I found it was much easier to just type in addresses, but the system won't let you do that when the car is moving, and I wouldn't want to in any case.
Voice recognition is often spotty, so maybe I shouldn't grade the Ford system too harshly on that. But that wasn't the only shortcoming I ran into.
The system struggled to sync my address book, for example. After finally uploading my contacts, it remained synced just long enough for me to make one or two calls -- then my contacts disappeared, never to be seen on the MyFord Touch system again.
Another bug I ran into involved the audio system. When I made a phone call with the radio off, the system would automatically turn the radio on when I hung up. Once the radio was on, the system wouldn't let me turn it off by pressing the physical power button underneath the touch screen. A Ford official said this is a known bug that should be fixed in the next release of the software.
And for all the purported improvements, I frequently found the MyFord Touch system to be sluggish or nonresponsive. When navigating back and forth through menus, there was often a noticeable delay, one long enough that I frequently would push an on-screen button a second or third time, concerned that the system hadn't registered my first press. Unfortunately, the subsequent presses could lead to things such as the system playing a song I didn't want to hear.
Problems such as these made me glad to be back in my own car. It may not be smart, but it also isn't so frustratingly dumb.
What: MyFord Touch touch-screen control console
Likes: Easy-to-use interface; ability to access and control wide variety of audio devices; links to smartphone applications such as Pandora
Dislikes: System sluggish; voice control system spotty; bug turns radio on after phone calls