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MyFord/MyLincoln Touch: A touch of intuition, or insanity?

Consumer Reports News: December 08, 2010 03:49 PM

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Ads for the new Lincoln MKX with Mad Men star John Slattery tell the buyer: "Don't be surprised if you haven't seen technology this intuitive before. No other car in the world has it." It is the MyLincoln Touch system, Ford's new interactive dashboard design.

While other cars have offered components of this system—touch-screen centered controls, highly configurable instrument panel displays, extensive voice recognition capabilities for making control inputs—no car has put it all together yet. Well, one other car has most of it: the MKX's platform-mate, the Ford Edge. The Edge has MyFord Touch as an available option; most Edges will wind up having it as the system is often bundled with common options. The MKX's standard MyLincoln Touch does one-up the Edge with touch-sensitive "slider" controls for volume and fan speed. (Knobs are oh-so-yesterday.) We have a 2011 Lincoln MKX and Ford Edge SEL in our test fleet. Both SUVs were extensively updated for 2011. And both are well-equipped: the Lincoln stickered at $50,235 and the Edge was $37,625. We have over 4,500 miles on the pair, so we can address the line about if we've "seen technology this intuitive before." (See our Ford Edge first look.)

First, the good stuff:

MyFord/MyLincoln Touch is logically laid out (unlike BMW's iDrive, which still takes a lot of study). The system has four quadrants: phone, message (or navigation), audio, and climate. They're color-coded, matching color coding on redundant displays adjacent to the speedometer. Want to control something? Just press the touch screen; no fiddling with a multi-function knob.

The very clear and high-resolution displays are visually appealing. So is the look of cutting-edge simplicity afforded by small touch-sensitive buttons taking the place of the typical sea of larger knobs and buttons on the dashboard. It looks great on a showroom floor, or a TV ad, or parked in a driveway.

And now the bad:

Just because something looks simple doesn't mean it is, especially when you're actually driving. The first impression is that there's A LOT here. The "home" screen shows the greatest hits, if you will, of the vehicle functions -- a selection of radio presets, basic climate functions, heated seats, phone status, and vehicle location with navigation.

Going beyond that initial screen is tough. Most touch-screen-equipped vehicles have adjacent buttons to select the screen you want. The Ford system requires you to touch those color-coded corners to dig deeper. Sounds simple enough, but without an initial tutorial, several drivers here were stymied about how to proceed. (Like others in the automotive press, most of us here had a tutorial on the system from a Ford engineer. Tellingly, the system didn't perform perfectly when she showed it to us.)

Once you get to the screen you want, you'll find that the control screens feature a lot of small on-screen buttons. Most of the fonts are small. That makes it hard to touch the right part of the screen when driving with just a quick glance. Most competitive touch screens have larger buttons and less content per screen.

If you don't use the touch screen, many basic radio and climate functions have dedicated capacitance switches. Unlike normal buttons, these don't move—they have no tactile feedback. Sometimes the buttons don't respond (especially if you're wearing gloves), sometimes they're over-sensitive. The days of reaching for a knob or preset button without looking are gone. The buttons are also very small, making it difficult to find the nearly flush touch surfaces at a glance.

At least our Edge has old-fashioned knobs for radio volume and fan speed. But the MKX's "slider" controls eliminate some of the best-designed, most intuitive controls in a car: the radio and fan speed knobs. As your finger bounces around in a moving car, it makes it tough to quickly make the adjustment you want. We don't see any advantage to these controls other than style or being different for difference's sake.

So, you wind up with multiple control methods, all sharing common flaws of being small and hard to use at a glance. But there's yet another way to work the controls and get the results you want. Even though this system is called MyFord or MyLincoln Touch, it really should be called MyFord/MyLincoln Speak. This version of SYNC has a vocabulary of (Ford's claim) 10,000 words. With the frustrations of using the touch controls, Ford seems to be driving you toward using the voice commands, if not insanity. (Read: "We try My Ford Touch. Result? Better yet, don't touch.")

There are pros and cons to this. (Voice commands, that is, not the insanity.) Using voice commands lets you keep your eyes on the road. SYNC's voice recognition works, though it's certainly not perfect. Voice commands are extensive, controlling climate, audio, phone, and navigation functions. It's probably the best method for controlling an iPod in a car to date. SYNC also uses simple conversational commands like "I'm hungry" or "I need a bathroom" to quickly find navigation points-of-interest, calling up nearby restaurants and gas stations, respectively.

It does take a bit of time to figure out the voice commands, which usually need to be prefaced with a function like "climate" or "Sirius." Then you can say a detailed command like "temperature 70 degrees" or the name of a station. (Getting help on how to frame commands is as simple as saying "help.")

Even though you pick up shortcuts, voice commands still take more time than just tapping a single button for simple functions.  (They're your only option for programming a navigation destination while driving.) Good luck trying to quiet noisy kids in the car so you can say the words to adjust a radio station or cabin temperature. And if you're driving with other adults, you seem a bit precious talking to your car instead of them.

Part of the promises made by manufacturers of shiny new technology is that it all works perfectly. Unfortunately, that hasn't been our experience with both the Edge and the MKX:

  • The center touch screen is sometimes maddingly slow to update or accept a touch command.
  • One of my colleagues spent two minutes trying to use SYNC to tune a particular FM radio frequency for the first time. (I rode as a passenger.) He finally got the radio to accept the command -- and then it simply went back to the previous Sirius satellite station, anyway.
  • Sometimes the "home" page of the system appears, even when you wanted to leave another page (audio, in this case) up on the screen.
  • Driving solo, my wife spent a while figuring out how to tune the radio. (She didn't get a tutorial beforehand.) She parked the car, went in the store, restarted the car...and the system resumed playing my iPod. I had a similar experience; I told SYNC to tune to a Sirius station, and my iPod started playing.
  • I pushed one preset button, heard the "beep" that it acknowledged it, and then it just stayed on the current station anyway.
  • Maybe most concerning, while driving the Edge, I had the system "crash" on me. I tried adjusting the temperature by voice, only to have the center screen and right instrument panel screen go dark. Both screens came back online after a few minutes. Needless to say, this failure was at best worrisome, at worst highly distracting.

So, the MyFord/MyLincoln Touch system might be intuitive in that it's better organized than some competitive systems, like BMW's iDrive. Using the car to do complex functions like music player and cell phone control is better than fiddling with the device itself. But with the Touch systems, some simple tasks have been made time-consuming and distracting. And the technology isn't flawless, which can be frustrating.

The Edge and the MKX are decent cars sabotaged by their controls. We hope that Ford brings back some buttons and knobs and improves the touch-screen interface, as well as working out the list of bugs.

Tom Mutchler

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