Are Gadgets Ruining Cars?
By Chris Haak
Gadget blog Gizmodo had a post yesterday entitled, “The Gadgetization of Cars is Kind of Ruining Them.” As a lover of both cars and gadgets, as well as cars with gadgets, I took interest in the article. In it, author Mat Honan discusses a recent JD Power and Associates press release that dinged US automakers for high-tech, hard to use navigation systems that consumers called a “design defect,” and therefore lowered IQS scores according to Power.
Gadgets, if done well, are excellent and improve the experience and customer satisfaction. JD Power is not really a reliable gauge of quality, because it lets car buyers ding their cars for “quality problems” even though the things are working as designed. The issue is that the design is poor – like MyFord Touch. MyFord Touch is a cool concept, but a capacitive touch interface without any tactile feedback means you have to take your attention off the road and look at the location of the button, aim your finger carefully, then wait for Ford’s laggy, bug-filled processor to catch up to you. The reality of MyFord Touch doesn’t live up to its hype, and Ford knows it – and is hopefully addressing it post-haste.
So with that out there, Honan then took a huge leap from owner complaints about things like MyFord Touch to cars are too complicated and now they’re ruined. He goes on to say that there’s a lot to be said for an “..old T-Bird or Buick or Volkswagon” [sic]. The comments in the thread then go into discussing whether cars still have carburetors (the last carbureted vehicle sold in the US was the 1994 Isuzu pickup, 17 years ago). But they’re all missing the point.
It’s not that Japanese cars have higher quality (and domestic cars have lower quality) in 2011 than they did in 2010. It’s that the American car companies have engaged in two behaviors for their 2011 model year vehicles that have “design related defects,” while by and large, Toyota, Nissan, and Honda have kept their lineups more or less the same as they were in 2010.
Honda’s entire lineup, save the Odyssey minivan, was the same in 2011 as it was in 2010. Ditto Toyota, except for the Sienna. Nissan – same thing. The lack of progress and innovation – and continuous improvement – from these Japanese automakers is what is helping their IQS scores (the 2008 Accord’s controls are basically the same as the 2011 Accord’s), but it’s certainly not helping them in the eyes of technology buffs.
Meanwhile, Ford’s latest product introductions were the all-new 2011 Explorer (with MyFord Touch), revised 2011 Edge (with MyFord Touch), revised Lincoln MKX (with MyLincoln Touch), all-new Focus (with MyFord Touch), and all-new Fiesta (with SYNC, but not MyFord Touch). Notice something common among these new Fords? Let’s touch upon the fact that, with the exception of the Fiesta, they are all available with MyFord Touch.
I’ve spent a combined two weeks driving 2011 Fords with MyFord Touch (a 2011 Edge, in which its navigation system and backup camera didn’t work, and a 2011 Explorer, in which MyFord Touch worked as designed, but still led to my complaints about its ergonimics). Also, we reviewed a 2011 Lincoln MKX that had such serious MyLincoln Touch issues that it had to be returned early for repairs, then the replacement had its own set of issues.
Assuming that MyFord Touch worked as designed (which it mostly did for me in the Explorer), and assuming that I was an owner of said Explorer, when JD Power asked me if there were any design flaws in the Explorer, I very well still might have said that the MyFord Touch interface was not an ergonomically sound idea for simple acts like changing the temperature or choosing a different radio station – things that can be done without looking in many cars, but not in MFT-equipped new cars. And if I was the owner of the Edge or MKX that we tested that had true problems or glitches with the interface, like reboots, no navigation, no functioning backup camera, etc., then you bet I’d let JD Power know about it.
But there’s another thing to this. Even with the glitches, I’d still buy a new Explorer today with navigation and MyFord Touch rather than one without. It carries a certain “wow” factor, and as the Gizmodo author notes, repairs may just be a reflash away. MyFord Touch also boasts a large, colorful, beautiful touchscreen that offers extremely detailed maps. If the choice is between an Explorer with MyFord Touch or a Highlander with 2007-vintage navigation and entertainment options, I’d pick the Explorer. I don’t know if others would, but I’m not ready to return to the days of crank windows, no air conditioning (or even single-zone air conditioning where my wife and I have to agree on a single temperature). I don’t want a cassette deck but no iPod connectivity or satellite radio.
Yes, the gadgets are sometimes a little hard to operate. But they make the driving experience a more pleasant one. And if you don’t want the gadgets, buy a used car, or buy a Kia Rio.