Americans spend vast amounts of time in their cars, where many feel cut off from the digital world. Using a cellphone or digital music player, even in a legal manner, can be clumsy. And a car’s user interface for non-driving functions can seem ancient compared with how other devices are controlled outside the vehicle.
So, auto makers have been trying to bring some of the feel of computers and consumer electronics to the dashboard, making it easier to use phones and music players in a safe way, through big screens and voice-command systems that allow the use of these devices without handling or seeing them. Ford placed a large bet on this trend in 2007 with a system called Sync, which I liked when I reviewed it then.
Now, Ford (F) is taking another big step, introducing a second generation of Sync that aims to redesign the entire user interface of the dashboard with color-coded touch screens, better voice recognition and five-way control pads on the steering wheel. This new system redefines the way you control in-car entertainment and climate settings; permits personalization of things like instrument-cluster gauges; and even lets you set up a Wi-Fi network in the car.
I’ve been testing the new Ford system, called MyFord Touch, for a couple of weeks on a 2011 Ford Edge Limited SUV, one of the first two models on which it is being offered. (The other is the Lincoln MKX, with a MyLincoln Touch system.) The Edge starts at $27,000, but the configuration I tested, on which the new interface is standard, lists for $36,000. On other versions of the Edge, MyFord Touch is available as part of a $1,000 option package.
MyFord Touch’s 8-inch touch screen, with function icons in the corners that switch the screen among four main functions: multisource audio entertainment, navigation, phone and climate control.
In general, I liked MyFord Touch, once I got used to it and configured its settings and its connection to phones and music players. The layout of most of the displays is clear and logical, and the voice-command system is still the best I’ve ever used in a car.
But Ford’s new user interface has so many options and functions that I believe it presents a challenging learning curve. Learning the new system can be distracting while driving, at least at first—even though Ford disables some functions while the car is in motion and even though voice commands are easy and plentiful, allowing you to keep your eyes on the road and hands on the wheel.
I urge caution, because this a very different dashboard than you may be used to. I only had the car for a short time, and put very few miles on it, so I can’t say how quickly the new features can become second nature and nondistracting. But anyone buying a car with MyFord Touch should always set up and configure it while parked, use voice commands whenever possible and avoid experimenting with new features and functions while driving. My advice is to learn these in the driveway, gradually.
Instead of the usual array of knobs, dials and passive screens, MyFord Touch is dominated by a giant 8-inch touch screen, with large function icons in the center and color-coded corners that you touch to switch the screen among four main functions: multisource audio entertainment, navigation, phone and climate control. There is also a “home” view, combining common functions that can be personalized.
The system also has several other elements. There are twin 4-inch screens on either side of the speedometer. The one on the left presents vehicle information, such as miles traveled, and allows you to customize some of the gauges so that, for instance, you can finally banish that tachometer you never use in favor of, say, a digital readout on gas-mileage efficiency. The one on the right replicates, in simpler form, the main functions of the center screen, so you can select and check things like audio and climate control without looking at, or touching, the main screen.
These smaller screens are controlled by five-way arrow clusters on the steering wheel, like controllers on iPods and other devices usable by touch alone. There also are some large, touch-sensitive buttons below the main center screen for things like setting volume and fan speed.
Finally, most, but not all, of these functions can be controlled by tens of thousands of available voice commands. And many of these commands can now be spoken without prefacing them with special terms. For instance, you can dial a contact by saying her name at any time, even if you’re not in the phone module on the screen, and even if you don’t first say “phone.”
This voice system worked very well for me, and is the crucial element of reducing distraction. But it wasn’t perfect. For instance, it had trouble with some names in my contact list with multiple entries, and with some streets in the navigation system.
Ford believes the combination of the touch screen, the instrument cluster screens and controls, and the voice commands provides a redundancy and ease of use that should allow both a familiar digital experience and safe driving. Of course, some believe doing anything but driving, no matter how those tasks are performed, is dangerous.
I tested MyFord Touch with an iPhone and an Android phone, which I connected wirelessly; and a standard iPod, which I connected via one of the two USB ports built into the car. I also tested a USB flash drive containing music and a couple of photos, since you can add a personal photo to one of the available views on the big screen. In addition, I tried a USB cellular modem lent me by Ford that creates a Wi-Fi network in the car, presumably only for the use of passengers with laptops and other devices.
All of these devices worked pretty well, but not without issues. The car easily recognized and used both phones for calling, and the iPod generally worked fine. But Bluetooth streaming of music from the phones, which is still an evolving industry feature, periodically failed and never displayed song or artist names. On the physically connected iPod, some album covers didn’t display.
At the moment, only one USB modem, an AT&T (T) model, works with MyFord Touch, and setting it up proved complicated. My general view is that, while operating the touch screen’s main functions is easy, the various setup and option menus are too complex.
The new Ford system can read text messages to you and let you send a limited number of canned responses—the idea being to make texting in a car somewhat safer. But I couldn’t try this as neither of my test phones supported this function.
Ford also has announced that the new system will support some third-party apps, like the Pandora music service, and will eventually have a Web browser for the big screen that would only work when the car is parked. But neither of these features is available yet.
For those who believe doing anything but driving in a car is dangerous, no amount of touch screens, voice commands or redundancy will do. But, for people who would like to enjoy some of their digital lifestyle in a car, MyFord Touch is worth checking out—as long as you take it slowly.
Write to Walt Mossberg at email@example.com.