Tech early adoption: fun in the living room, but safe in the car?

January 5, 2011: 2:39 PM ET

The new MyFord touch system's best function may be as a warning to other car manufacturers of how not to go about innovating when it comes to high-tech dashboards.

Sync with MyTouch in a Ford

Part of the MyFord Touch system, which also resides on the instrument panel and steering wheel.

Earlier this week, Consumer Reports panned the MyFord Touch system, an optional touch-based user interface featured in revamped models like the Ford Edge and standard in the company's higher-end Limited models. In "Ford's frustrating high-tech controls," the publication takes the carmaker to task. Apparently in its attempt to capitalize on the recent successes of tablets like the iPad and Samsung Tab and integrate a similar user experience into its new vehicles a car, Ford (F) sacrificed some serious usability along the way. Auto manufacturers may want to take note from Ford's trailblazing and learn a lesson many consumer tech companies have already learned – if you're an early adopter, you're going to get burned.

Carmakers have been working towards simplifying car controls for some time now – as resident car expert Alex Taylor III explained in his own hands-on with the Edge, German luxury car makers in particular have toyed with giving in-car instruments more versatility. That's why some knobs pull double, even triple duty: pull them to do one thing, twist it to do another, tilt it for another feature altogether. The problem is that all those extra gestures don't feel the least bit intuitive.

As Ford CEO Alan Mullaly sees it, the next big step for car instrument panels is touch. Adapted from the Boeing (BA) 777's all-glass cockpit, the goal with the MyFord system seems to have been to simplify car panels further while injecting some sexy new tech into the mix. And while the Edge offers two other ways to navigate its numerous controls – mechanical buttons on the steering wheel and under the center screen, as well as its voice-recognition "Sync" feature – the 8-inch climate and audio touchscreen controls, located front and center, reportedly prove challenging.

As Consumer Reports tells it, the controls are oftentimes hidden among cluttered pages, small buttons (that can be enlarged) and fonts. Perhaps worst of all, the screen and the touch-sensitive buttons below it aren't always responsive or the most exact – users may need to tap buttons more than once, and the act of swiping is inherently inaccurate.

A suggested use of Ford Work Solutions, which uses the Sync system.

A suggested use of Ford Work Solutions, which uses an earlier version of the Sync system.

As for things proving intuitive, don't count on it. Though Taylor's impression of the overall experience was more positive, he recommends users take at least an hour to familiarize themselves with the new system before doing some serious driving: a half-hour of professional instruction and a half hour of to acclimate on your own. Some might argue that an hour isn't much, but should users need an hour just to figure out how to turn on the A/C?

Using the latest, greatest consumer tech in new models sure seems tempting – who wouldn't want to capitalize on current trends? – but that mentality may not be the best idea for auto, where safety remains the number one concern. It's one thing to have a sub-par user experience on a tablet computer users just tote around, but having a bad user experience in a vehicle users arguably entrust theirs (and others) lives with sounds downright dangerous.

Are we being overly dramatic? Maybe. But any car instruments that could possibly distract the driver can't be viewed as a good thing. Ford, which is currently tied with Toyota right now for first place in Consumer Reports' 2011 Car Brand Perception survey, and other carmakers, should take note that going down this road with its consumers may not be the smooth ride they'd envisioned.

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About This Author
JP Mangalindan
JP Mangalindan
Writer, Fortune

JP Mangalindan is a San Francisco-based writer at Fortune, covering Silicon Valley. Since joining in 2010, he has written on a wide array of topics, from the turnaround of eBay to the evolution of net neutrality. A graduate of Fordham University, Mangalindan has also written for GQ, Popular Science, and Entertainment Weekly.

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