MyFord Touch control and display system (© Ford Motor Company)Click to enlarge picture

The MyFord Touch control and display system includes LCD screens that flank the speedometer and a screen in the center stack.

We live in a touch-screen world. Just ask the designers of the iPhone, iPad or any Android device, and they'll tell you there is no better way of putting a near-infinite amount of information and control within a defined space than on a screen that you interact with directly. Automakers have been integrating touch-screen interfaces into dashboards for several years now, digitizing the controls for everything from navigation to climate-control systems onto large console-mounted screens with an ever-increasing architecture of menus and submenus that now rival the complexity of desktop PCs.

Take the new $58,000 Hyundai Equus, for instance. It not only has an 8-inch screen in the console for everything from navigation to climate control to camera-based parking guidance, the car also comes with its owner's manual installed as an application on an included iPad.

Compare: Hyundai Equus vs. Mercedes-Benz S-Class vs. BMW 7-Series

What's driving the need for in-car screens? "Computerization and wireless technology have greatly increased the range of entertainment options," says John D. Lee, a human-factors expert at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. New cars have satellite radio and Bluetooth links to cell phones, they can play MP3s and read text messages, and many of their computer-controlled systems can be customized by the user. "Screen-based systems make it possible to dramatically increase the number of functions and features available to the driver," Lee says. "Presented as individual knobs and buttons, they would likely exceed the space within arm's length of the driver."

Sounds ideal, right? Not so much.

It's no coincidence that the high-tech feature creep that has necessitated the in-car LCD screen has evolved concurrently with a new concern about the dangers of distracted driving. So far, most distraction-related accidents have resulted from drivers taking their eyes off the road to dial or answer cell phones, or from the relatively new, boneheaded phenomenon of texting while driving. The statistics are chilling: The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration reports that 5,474 people were killed and an estimated 448,000 were injured in distracted-driving accidents in 2009. According to the Insurance Institute for Highway Safety, drivers who use handheld devices are four times as likely to get into serious crashes.

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Part of the rationale for integrating a wide range of entertainment and telecommunications devices into a vehicle's controls is to deal with the fact that, like it or not, drivers are bringing phones and iPods and various texting devices into their cars. It would seem better for them to hunt for a song or a phone number on a custom-designed 8-inch console screen than to fumble around for those things on the tiny screen of a portable device. Yet as the complexity of a car's operating system has grown, it seems that the auto industry may be learning all the wrong design lessons from the gadgets that they are trying so hard to accommodate.

The Problem
Recently, Consumer Reports slammed the MyFord Touch system, which is at the forefront of a new generation of advanced automotive computer interfaces. Ford had previously gained accolades from auto journalists and customers alike for its Sync system, a voice-recognition technology launched in 2007 that allows drivers to control many of a car's functions with voice commands. Voice recognition has long been considered a holy grail for automotive interfaces, since it theoretically allows drivers to control complex systems without taking their eyes off the road.

Sync resulted from a partnership between Ford and Microsoft (MSN Autos' parent company), and its voice recognition was good enough to call up names from the driver's cell-phone contact list, and even to find individual songs and artists by name on an iPod. The new MyFord Touch system — also known as MyLincoln Touch in the new Lincoln MKX — expands on the voice control with one 8-inch touch-screen and capacitive slide controls built into the center console, plus two 4.2-inch screens integrated into the instrument cluster and a series of steering-wheel-mounted multidirectional control pads.

Read Blog:  Consumer Reports: No to Chevy SUV, Ford Crossovers, MyFord Touch

Ford says the system "helps you keep your eyes on the road," but Consumer Reports' senior automotive engineer Thomas Mutchler thought otherwise, calling the system so complicated that it could become a distraction while driving. "The basic idea's OK," Mutchler says. "There's nothing wrong with having multiple ways of making an input. If you want to have four ways of adjusting the climate control, that's fine, but at least one of them should be a good one. The touch-screen and the buttons are small, and it's hard to find the one you want to push."

He then fired off a litany of ergonomic crimes: "The touch-sensitive capacitive switches are finicky and don't work well when it's cold. The steering-wheel commands are menu-driven, so you have to go through a couple of steps to do something that could have been done with the turn of a knob. The voice commands work sometimes and they don't work sometimes, and you feel kind of stupid talking to the car when there's someone else in the car with you."

It's a pretty strong indictment: The system that was supposed to be designed to help you manage complexity so that you don't get distracted ends up being so complex that it becomes the distraction. As you might expect, Ford sees things differently. A spokesman says the system provides a "smarter, safer, simpler way to connect drivers with many in-car technologies and their digital lives." He said that customer feedback on the system has been positive, but that Ford takes feedback from both customers and Consumer Reports seriously when it comes to upgrading and improving the system. Indeed, as software-based operating systems, Sync and MyFord Touch can be updated relatively easily, and some upgrades to the system have already been made.

Bing: MyFord Touch