Unplugged

Drive Trial: Two Weeks on the Edge

May/June 2011

All I got for Christmas was a new Ford Edge. That is, I got a 2011 Ford Edge Sport to “drive” for two weeks over the holidays, so I could experiment with MyFordTouch—Ford’s connected car solution. It felt like I had won the Publishers’ Clearinghouse Sweepstakes when they dropped off the car. I joked with the driver, “You should have brought balloons!”

A looming Pacific storm threatened to keep us house-bound the weekend before Christmas, so we decided to pass the storm traversing Southern California’s scenic back roads in the Edge instead of watching TV from the couch. Tellingly, it started sprinkling while we were packing the car. Before the weekend was over, Southern California would receive a record drenching that flooded low-lying areas and forced many road closures, including some of the roads we traveled as part of our Edge test drive.

We made it to Topanga Canyon in under an hour. By then the rain was sheeting from the sky and running in deep, milk-chocolate-colored streams beside the road. The Edge handled well as we dodged fallen rocks on the wet, winding roads and maintained traction the next day when we crossed the remotely beautiful Carrizo Plain on a 34-mile dirt road (mud, in the rain). The car’s rain-sensitive windshield wipers were a bit startling: They would suddenly jump into hyper-speed when rain torrents or heavy droplets from overhanging trees fell on the windshield. We were thankful for the Edge’s heated seats and easy-to-use dual climate controls since we were constantly jumping into the car dappled (or drenched) with rain.

MyFordTouch, which is built on Ford’s SYNC platform, offers four different ways to interact with the car’s systems: the center touchscreen, steering wheel buttons combined with displays flanking both sides of the speedometer, voice recognition, and dashboard buttons. Each session begins by selecting one of the car’s four command groups: phone, audio, climate, or navigation, which calls up context-sensitive submenus.

For example, after selecting “Phone,” the choices include: “Place a Call,” “Play Voicemail,” and “Do Not Disturb.” Selecting “Entertainment” generates a list of input sources to select, such as HD radio, Sirius satellite radio, or an MP3 player. The command groups are color-coded on the system’s three displays to help with quick visual recognition.

While Ford’s four command groups and four access methods allow each driver to use the system as suits him or her best, it’s a LOT to learn. Consumer Reports called MyFordTouch a “complicated distraction” and used it to justify pulling its “recommended” rating from the Ford Edge and the Lincoln MKX.

Cars.com called MyFordTouch “bedazzling in theory, befuddling in practice,” and suggests “skipping it altogether by selecting the base trim level.” Ford has started paying dealerships to offer MyFordTouch lessons to new owners and launched a MyFordTouch owners’ Website with training videos, a discussion forum, and access to customer support.

In Ford’s defense, they strongly recommend using voice recognition while the car is moving. In fact, it’s the only way a specific street address can be added as a destination while driving. Consumer Reports quipped: “Even though this system is called MyFordTouch or MyLincolnTouch, it really should be called MyFord/Lincoln Speak.” I found that the voice recognition system requires learning, practice, and the ability to stifle other sounds in the car—a challenge with a car full of kids. I sometimes repeated the same request three or four times before the system understood me, and I pulled over more than once for this problem. I understand the system “learns” your voice with repeated use, so I expect this experience would improve over time.

Locating nearby points of interest was often difficult. In response to a location request, such as “hotel” or “Mission Santa Ynez,” the system presents a numbered list of potential matches on the center screen. To select an item, the driver either says the line number or taps that row on the screen. To my eye, the fonts and rows on the list are too small to make a selection without taking my eyes off the road for longer than I’m comfortable. Bigger buttons and fonts are needed. Also, the system sometimes didn’t find well-known destinations such as The Cannery Restaurant in Newport Beach, which Ford says is a problem originating with its navigation partner, TeleNav.

Ford also needs to change what can and can’t be done while the car is moving. In particular, drivers need to be able to select a city center, such as “Ojai, California,” as a destination while driving. Requesting routing to a city is far less distracting than reading a complete street address aloud. Adding to the frustration, the list of possible points of interest more than once included destinations the system would not let us select while driving … please Ford, don’t give us choices when we’re moving that we can’t choose because we’re not stopped!

Traffic conditions are delivered through a Sirius subscription and appear as narrow colored bands on the edges of the roads on the map display. I found these hard to see. Otherwise, the navigation system is accurate and easy to use, even way out in the boondocks. I liked the “eco-driving” feature, which selects routes based on fuel efficiency by considering factors such as the average speed, hills, and number of stop lights. When my fuel level dropped below 25%, the navigation system automatically showed nearby gas stations. Best of all, the maps display the speed limit for the road on which you’re driving—terrific for country roads where speed-limit markers may be fewer and farther between than speed traps.

One of MyFordTouch’s primary selling points is the ability to play music from smartphones and media players, but we weren’t able to access songs on an iPhone 3G, iPhone 3GS, or Motorola Droid. We could use them with the system to place and receive phone calls, but text messaging and music playback didn’t work. Not having music for such a long trip was a drag. Ford accidentally canceled our Sirius subscription shortly after we hit the road, and we were out of HD radio range much of the time. When it was available, HD radio was great, and album cover art from Gracenote enhanced the experience.

SYNC’s support team told me later that, at the time, there were only four phones that integrated fully with MyFordTouch: Verizon’s Droid X and Droid 2, AT&T’s Sunburst, and Sprint’s LG Rumor Touch. Ford released an update to the system in January, which reportedly improves compatibility for messaging and music, and should expand the number of phones that work with the system. I suggest all potential buyers either verify their smartphone works with MyFordTouch before driving the car off the lot, or commit to buying a new phone later that’s compatible with the car.

Even with these frustrations, I found MyFordTouch to be helpful, entertaining, and fairly easy to use after a short learning curve. Kudos to Ford for being the first to offer a fully featured in-car information and entertainment system, and to Microsoft for developing the underlying Windows Embedded Automotive architecture. These platforms will continue to evolve: Ford released its first major update to MyFordTouch in January, while Microsoft continues to evolve its platform in response to requirements from Ford, Nissan, Fiat, and Kia.

As for the car itself, it was comfy. At the end of our two-day, 560-mile road trip, my passenger and I both felt great. The Edge’s low outside visibility made me squeamish, however, and I can’t help but wonder whether Ford added blind-spot sensors because it’s almost impossible to see out of the back corners. The blind-spot detection system isn’t fail-safe, either. It stopped working about 100 miles from home and wouldn’t start again until the car was parked overnight. The dashboard buttons are also problematic: instead of being push-buttons, they are “touch-sensitive capacitance buttons” that are small, placed below the driver’s line of sight, and far too easy to activate by accidentally brushing them. That happened a LOT: the emergency flasher button is positioned immediately below the center touchscreen, and I turned them on several times by accidentally brushing this button — then couldn’t figure out how to turn them off since I wasn’t aware of how I had turned them on! Smashing my index finger against the flasher button repeatedly, with increasing force, didn’t work, so we had to pull to the side of the road—twice.

Eventually we figured out that the buttons respond only to a gentle touch, but the placement of the emergency flasher button in the Edge is regrettable given how and how often the touchscreen is used. What lies ahead for MyFordTouch? Ford has already released a smartphone application that lets owners to interact with certain models remotely, as well as “AppLink” which allows the car to control three smartphone entertainment apps: Pandora, Stitcher Radio and Openbeak. They added parental controls for radio content in December, and in February announced that the system will be available in 19 languages by the end of 2011.

Ford’s “American Journey 2.0” may provide a preview of coming capabilities. In May 2010, two teams of students that won a Ford/Northwestern University innovation contest drove two Ford Fiestas from Michigan to California, testing student-written automotive social networking apps that could be handy for families. One of the cars, named “AJ,” used sensor data and road conditions to tweet its “mood” along the way, such as: “AJ needs food. (Fuel level is 24%).” The car automatically checked itself into Foursquare whenever it stopped, and kept track of companion vehicles with a “Caravan Track” app. Ford has not announced when social networking functions will be added to MyFordTouch, I wouldn’t expect to see them before 2012, at the soonest.

Thanks, Ford, for the opportunity to test-drive the 2011 Edge Sport with MyFordTouch. You’re off to a great start. Keep it up.


Laurie Lamberth recently returned to the Carrizo Plain to enjoy its dramatic display of spring wildflowers. Study Laurie’s map of her Ford Edge drive trial, or learn about her strategic business development and consulting practice at www.laurielamberth.com

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By | 2015-06-23T17:14:46+00:00 4/28/2011|

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