Tuesday, January 8, 2013

MyFord Touch Woes

A couple of years ago, we decided to scale back a bit on what we were spending money on. We wanted to save up to get some work done on the house, so looked at all the areas where we were spending perhaps a little more money than we needed to on regular expenses. Something we quickly came to the conclusion of was that our monthly car payments and associated costs were more than they needed to be. At the time we were enjoying an Audi and a Mercedes (posh, huh?) which were both pretty expensive rides, and not exactly frugal at the pump. The decision? We'd be idealistic and whimsical and buy domestic. We'd support the shitty economy, and save ourselves some cash along the way.

After some shopping around we decided that we quite liked what Ford had to offer, and traded the A4 and the CLK for a new Focus and an Edge CUV. The former for my commute, the latter for all the kid/dog-related shenanigans that necessitate a far larger car than you ever anticipate. Both came pretty fully loaded, and both boasted Ford's new Microsoft-powered Sync MyFord Touch system for audio, navigation, HVAC and pretty much everything else. The system also has the voice recognition system that Ford decided to ram down our throats through product placement in episodes of Fringe last year, too.

After two years with the cars, my feelings are quite mixed. The cars themselves have been superb. Reliable, solid, comfortable, they perform well enough, and they're much more economical than our previous cars. Mechanically, we have no complaints whatsoever. Electronically, however, they leave one hell of a lot to be desired.

OK, so we're veering way, way, way into "first world problems" territory here, so remember that my complaints about the MyFord Touch nonsense are predominantly recreational. The bottom line though, is that it's deeply, deeply flawed. At least the systems in our two cars are. Perhaps we're particularly unlucky, and have experienced unusual problems? I don't know - but here's a quick list of things that happen regularly.

The voice recognition system is laughable. Ignoring the fact that it periodically decides that it doesn't understand my beautifully enunciated English accent, more frequently it just refuses to work at all. I hit the button, it makes it's little double-bonging noise and then… nothing. It just hangs the system for anything between two and 10 minutes while something happens in the background. At other times it stops understanding things in the middle of an important function. It'll acknowledge that I want to make a phone call, but won't find the entry in the address book. Or it'll stop understanding an address halfway through being told. After about three months I just stopped using the functionality all together because it hardly ever did what I expected it to.

The navigation system very often refuses to function, too. When it's being playful, it'll just fail to get a GPS lock and put the car in weird locations on the map. When it's being obstinate it'll block any attempt to us it, period. Sometimes it will lock out the upper right hand quadrant of the touchscreen that accesses the navigation functions, and just stop doing anything. Often it does things that are just irritating. Most frequently it will claim there isn't a maps SD card inserted when there actually is. Frequently it will forget that it sets the car's clock with GPS and just arbitrarily set it to Eastern Standard Time.

The audio system is wildly hit and miss. When you start the car, it will often select a pre-programmed radio station at random. When you plug an iPhone in to play audio with a cable it usually takes 8 minutes (I timed it) to recognize that something is plugged into the USB port. Often it will ignore what the phone is telling it and force the system back to the first audio file on the phone, ignoring playlists or albums completely and just grabbing whatever is alphabetically first. This is particularly annoying when listening to audiobooks podcasts, because it will lose your place in the book or the show. The key is make a note of the chapter and timestamp before you plug in every time. The problem isn't isolated to my iPhone, either. It had the exact same problem with three different Android devices. It also struggles with Bluetooth - both in terms of establishing a connection at all, and then controlling the device on the rare occasions that it does actually connect. There's no system browse or file selection…you have to do everything on the phone, and just hit play on the car's screen. Nine times out of 10 this doesn't actually achieve anything.

Because the Focus has a keyless system, forcing the car to "reset" when it gets really bent out of shape is quite comical. To do a soft reboot of the system, you have to create the equivalent state of "removing the key" in a standard ignition car. The only way I've managed to do this is to put the car in Park, press "Stop" and then open the frickin' door to force the electronics to shut down. This doesn't always work, because sometimes the system is so snarled up that it will just freeze out on the main system UI and lock up completely. There have been times where I've switched off the car, walked away and locked it, only to come back 10 minutes later and the Touch system is still apparently "on" and the screen active.

Here's how the car was behaving on my commute to work this morning…

Image 1 8 13 at 12 55 PM

A rare occurrence where there's an error in every quadrant of the UI, including the HVAC piece in the bottom right. To get it to sort itself out (somewhat, but not completely,) I had to pull over and do the open door trick. It then took its usual 8 minutes to connect my iPhone, and spent the entire ride from San Rafael to Mountain View still convinced I was on Greenfield Ave and heading North.

I can live with all this, because it doesn't happen all the time, but honestly it's really pretty ridiculous for a modern 21st century computer system to be this busted. Especially one that runs all the systems in something where safety and reliability is essential. 

Electronic features designed to make things "safer" are actually much more distracting when they don't work.

What's more ridiculous is the denial and lack of any kind of technical knowledge seen from Ford's service department. They'll claim there aren't problems when there clearly are, and they'll claim that different models require different versions of the system software because "only that car was experiencing problems." We've seen the exact same computer issues in both the Edge and the Focus, yet according to Ford only the Edge required the update because there are "no known issues with the Focus." Surely, if there's a software update available, it should be installed? It's easy to do…Ford acknowledged that the situation a year ago was so bad that they sent a USB key to every Sync-touting Ford owner in the country. Updating the system was as simple as putting the key in the USB port and pressing a button. Ironically that update process was probably exhibited the most reliable behavior I've ever seen from the thing!

The Sync and MyFord Touch system is the foundation on which Ford eventually wants to build its autonomous car system. I think they have one or two bugs to sort out before that's practical.


Andy said...

I still can't quite get over the idea that you have to reboot your car. Words fail me.

John Davison said...

Isn't that completely nuts? It's an increasingly frequent occurrence too. There appears to be some kind of memory-leak style problem that makes the issue deteriorate over time. I'm now have to "reboot" the car every couple of hundred miles.