Ford Smartens Up and Dumbs Cars Down

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Since 2010, Ford has been aggressively pushing a touch-screen control system as a replacement to old-fashioned knobs and buttons on the dashboard. But guess what? Those knobs and buttons did the job pretty well—and drivers want them back.

Consumers can be counted on to embrace technology that genuinely makes their lives easier and more enjoyable. But what about when tech is more complicated than the system it was designed to replace? Then “innovation” only gets consumers annoyed.

Critics have been saying that automakers have gone overboard with technology in cars in general in recent times. Last week, USA Today ran a story about how travelers are frequently baffled by rental cars, each of which seems to have a different systems for controlling and adjusting basics like A/C and the radio. One traveler reported having to ask a rental car agent to help him how to turn off the hazard lights after they’d mysteriously been turned on. Even after consulting the manual, it took them 15 minutes to figure out how to shut them off.

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Ford’s MyFord Touch video screen system, which the automaker introduced in 2010 as a replacement to traditional dashboard controls, and which was expected to be in 80% of new Ford vehicles by 2015, has been among the most complained-about systems. Last summer, Consumer Reports offered a laundry list of reasons “Why the MyFord Touch Control System Stinks,” which starts with the fact that vehicle interiors have almost no knobs or buttons:

Instead, it offers a variety of different ways to enter commands: flush capacitive switches on the center stack, a big center touchscreen, steering-wheel controls, and voice commands. But none are well designed, and combined they make the cars feel really complicated—especially when trying to perform the most common audio and climate adjustments.

There are various versions of the system, and they get worse as they get more advanced and expensive. All systems come with the touchscreen. The base version at least offers two knobs: one for volume and one for fan speed, along with separate climate controls in some models.

Apparently, Ford is conceding that the system is indeed too complicated, and more knobs are expected to make their way back into Ford vehicles. The bulk of a new press release from the automaker pumps up the idea that MyFord Touch “helps drive higher customer satisfaction with vehicle quality,” and highlights how the percentage of new Fords cars featuring the system is double that of infotainment systems included in new Hondas and Toyotas. And yet, buried down in the text is the revelation that in the future, the old buttons and knobs will be returning to Ford’s lineup, just like they already have with popular F-150 trucks. “F-150 blends touch screen capability with traditional buttons and knobs, a similar balance planned for future Ford vehicles,” the release states.

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This means that drivers should at least be able to change radio stations or adjust the volume without having to tap on a screen or go through a frustrating series of voice commands. Drivers should also be able to physically tweak the air-conditioning without worrying that the controls system would freeze and have to be rebooted.