The Truth About Cars » Gizmology The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. Wed, 23 Jul 2014 18:25:17 +0000 en-US hourly 1 The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars no The Truth About Cars (The Truth About Cars) 2006-2009 The Truth About Cars The Truth About Cars is dedicated to providing candid, unbiased automobile reviews and the latest in auto industry news. The Truth About Cars » Gizmology Start-Stop System: Now Available On YOUR Smartphone – Or is it a stop-start system? Fri, 24 May 2013 09:50:42 +0000

Some forty years in the making, start-stop  technology has arrived on your smartphone. Volkswagen launched an app that stops YouTube videos automatically when you look away from the screen. And it starts again, when you look back. The app uses facial recognition technology to capture when the viewer is looking away, only to resume when eyeballs are back on screen. PWHS (People With Heightened Sensitivities) will not like it: Averting your eyes during a shocking scene on YouTube won’t help anymore. The price of progress, I guess.
But what are the origins of this startling technology?

startstop-popular science

The 1974 pioneer, largely ignored

Start-stop technology has come a long, long, very long way. One of, maybe the first start-stop systems was invented by Toyota. In October 1974, the first oil crisis was in full swing, Bob Dunham reported in Popular Science and from Tokyo that “Toyota has developed an automatic engine stop-start system that is likely to become available as an option if fuel shortages continue.” The system would shut off the ignition if the car would be stopped for longer than 1.5 seconds. It was available on a six cylinder Toyota Crown, where it would “restart when the driver pushed out the clutch.” Four decades ago, the system gave the writer “10-percent better fuel economy,” along with a reduction of CO2 emissions, which “are highest when the engine is idling.”


In 1979, there was a second oil crisis. This one looked like it was here to stay. Volkswagen introduced a start-stop system in the early 80s, on the Volkswagen Santana and its sibling, the Passat. Volkswagen insisted on calling it a “Stop-Start-Anlage (SSA),” because first it stops the car, then it starts. The discussion about what comes first, the start or the stop, rages on until today.

Hand-operated early Volkswagen system – largely ignored

In the first iterations of the SSA, the engine had to be stopped with the push of a button. When gas and clutch were engaged, the engine did start. Later, it stopped automatically, like with the Toyota gizmo ten years before. The SSA did sound like a good idea, but it was rarely used. As a standalone option, it was nearly never ordered. Santana historian Tilman Grund  thinks that by 1986, the SSA may have “existed only in the catalog.” People were scared to use it. The few that bought it did so as placebo sedative for the green conscience, but left it switched off. Not coincidentally, by 1986, oil prices were down to pre-1974 levels, and two golden decades of cheap black gold ensued, stunting the growth of the gizmo.

Zooming oil prices after the turn of the millennium, along with progress in electronics and mechanics, and the rising acceptance of hybrid systems helped the start-stop, stop-start, or idle stop systems become mainstream – despite its occasional critics. And now, it’s available on your phone.  Where do you think the fortunes of the start-stop system and the futures of oil are going?

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Ford To Improve Digital Dealer Experience With A Lot Of Money Mon, 11 Feb 2013 14:22:51 +0000

In the world of dealer standards, it is usually the OEMs that write the standards, and it is the dealers who have to pay the usually steep bills. Occasionally, an OEM even is tempted to recoup the steep cost of developing a new corporate identity by marking up the signage sold to its dealers.  Dealers hate it. Ford is doing something dealers will love: Ford will offer dollar-for-dollar matching funds to its 3,100 U.S. dealers to upgrade their shops, from new construction to improved digital programs, Ford executives told Reuters.

The bulk of the money will not go to bricks and mortars, but to “enhance customer digital experiences. Much of it will be spent to help customers use tablet computers to liaise with dealerships,” Reuters writes.

Ford’s Jim Farley did not want to say how much the program will cost. “If all 3,100 dealers enroll and sign letters of intent in 2013 to make the upgrades, it could cost Ford as much as $2.33 billion in matching funds,” Reuters calculated.


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Sprint To Automakers: Give Us Your Tired, Your Poor, Your Wretched In-Dash Gizmos Fri, 30 Nov 2012 07:39:52 +0000

Sprint Nextel presents a new “Velocity” in-vehicle communications and entertainment architecture at the LA auto show. You can’t buy it from Sprint, but Sprint hopes your automaker will buy it from them. This did not keep Sprint from taking jabs at its presumptive customers:

“They know how to make great cars. They assemble these vehicles that we all fall in love with. But when it comes to this stuff, they are not in the communications business.”

So spoke Wayne Ward, Sprint’s vice president of emerging solutions, to Reuters.

Velocity meets automakers with severe migraine. Misunderstood technology did cost precious J.D.Power points.  Consumer Reports panned the MyFord Touch system and called GM’s new CUE system “convoluted and frustrating.”

“This stuff is pretty hard,” said Ward who hopes that automakers learn to leave the stuff to the experts.

Velocity is an application framework for infotainment and telematic systems. It includes Infotainment and streaming music, remote locking and unlocking, vehicle start, 911 assist, even creating a rolling Wi-Fi hotspot.

Sprint’s first customer is Chrysler which uses Velocity as the basis for its UConnect system in the Ram pickup truck and Dodge Viper.



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Ford: Wait, We Fixed MyFordTouch! Mon, 07 Nov 2011 20:18:33 +0000

MyFordTouch was supposed to build on the SYNC system’s momentum, extending Ford’s edge in mass-market infotainment gizmology. Instead, MyFord nearly killed the golden egg-laying goose, by earning Ford a sharp downgrade from Consumer Reports and widespread criticism. Ford has decided that 40-minute training sessions weren’t going to cut it as a response to the complaints that the system was balky and confusing, and The Blue Oval is now trumpeting the all-new for 2013 version of MyFordTouch. Because, in the words of Ford’s spokes-interior-designer-person

As you can see, with a software platform like SYNC, it’s easy to continuously improve and upgrade your system.

You know, in comparison to the all-new Ford Escape she’s sitting in. It’s still not quite as easy as a computer software update: instead of downloading the reflash, you have to go into a dealer to get the upgrade. Meanwhile, this is just the latest hurdle in the hot-hot in-car gizmo side of the business. The big one comes in 2014, when the government issue rules on distraction-mitigation in voice-activated in-car systems. That could make this minor public beta testing fiasco look like nothing…

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Paper Treated Differently Than Smartphones in Automobile Searches Tue, 01 Nov 2011 14:16:52 +0000

Motorists searched during a traffic stop may find their iPhone data electronically grabbed by police in ways that would not be possible or acceptable with written material. Some police departments, including the Michigan State Police, are equipped with a mobile forensics device able to extract images, videos, text messages and emails from smartphones. In some cases, the device is able to bypass password protection. Several states have been reluctant to curtail law enforcement access to this information.

In January the California Supreme Court ruled in California v. Diaz that a police officer did not need a warrant to read the text messages on a cell phone grabbed during a search incident to arrest. A Court of Appeal ruling in September (view opinion) found a Blackberry in an automobile was nothing more than a “container” subject to warrantless examination. Golden State lawmakers recoiled at the precedent being set and moved quickly to introduce legislation requiring police to obtain judicial approval before searching a phone. The state Senate approved the measure in June by a vote of 28-9 and the state Assembly unanimously passed it in August. Governor Jerry Brown (D), however, used his veto power last month to prevent the measure from becoming law.

“I am returning Senate Bill 914 without my signature,” Brown wrote in his message to the Senate. “The courts are better suited to resolve the complex and case-specific issues relating to constitutional search-and-seizures protections.”

Nationwide, the courts do not agree on how such cases should be handled. On Tuesday, New York’s Supreme Court, Appellate Division ruled that police had no right to read a driver’s paper notebook during a search. The case began when a Suffolk County Police officer pulled over Cristobal Perez for driving while talking on his cell phone and weaving in his lane. Perez had been operating on a suspended license, so his car was impounded. Police did not wait to ask a judge for a warrant before reading the papers found in the vehicle. The state’s second-highest court saw no reason why law enforcement could not wait for a judge.

“Here, the police officer’s initial entry of the defendant’s impounded car to leaf through notebooks located in the back seat was an unjustified unconstitutional search, and the notebooks and any information gleaned therein by the officer must be suppressed,” the unanimous court ruled. “Further, the plain view doctrine does not apply, because the incriminating character of the notebooks was not immediately apparent.”

Lawmakers in the Empire State have not addressed the issue of electronic searches. A copy of the New York decision is available in an 85k PDF file at the source link below.

Source: PDF File New York v. Perez (New York Supreme Court, Appellate Division, 10/25/2011)


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The War On Drivers: “Car-To-X” Communication System Testing Begins Sat, 22 Oct 2011 19:30:05 +0000

Though the idea that there is a “war on cars” appeals to certain segments of society, there’s little evidence for any such effort. On the other hand, it’s pretty clear that there’s a “war on drivers” on, and it’s being led by the automotive industry. On the one hand, cars are being ever-more laden with distracting gizmos and toys, while simultaneously, companies are testing systems that minimize the need for drivers at all. Though Google’s autonomous cars get a lot of media play in this country, another system is moving Europe towards a similar endgame. Known as “Car-To-X,” the system allows cars to swap information like speed and direction, not just with each other but with traffic lights and traffic data collectors. The idea is to avoid traffic and crashes, by warning drivers of oncoming traffic in a left-hand turn scenario, for example. Because who wants to use their eyes to make sure they’re safe when technology can do it for you?

According to Autobild, the first public German test of the system will begin next spring, with 120 vehicles taking part. GM is currently testing a similar system. If all goes according to plan, systems like this and Google’s autonomous technology will fulfill GM’s prediction that autonomous vehicles will be a reality by 2020, and the war on driving will be won. Or lost, depending on your perspective.

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Cadillac XTS: The High-Tech… Livery Car? Thu, 13 Oct 2011 19:14:25 +0000

Though we haven’t even seen a production version yet, Cadillac’s forthcoming XTS has already lived a full, controversy-laden life. Initially suggested as a replacement for the DTS/STS, the Cadillac faithful quickly recoiled at the idea of a luxury “flagship” based on a stretched version of the Epsilon II midsized platform that underpins the Buick LaCrosse and Chevrolet Malibu. But with the Cadillac Ciel Concept showing the way forward for a “true” Caddy flagship which will eventually become the brand’s standard-bearer, the XTS’s role has been somewhat redefined. Expectations for the XTS were walked back by GM CEO Dan Akerson, who famously said that it was

not going to blow the doors off, but will be very competitive

And this week the enigma that is the XTS only deepened, as Cadillac announced two bits of seemingly contradictory information about it: first, that it would spearhead a new high-tech interface (see video above) and second, that it would mark GM’s return to the livery car business.

Cadillac’s CUE system will debut on both the XTS, ATS and 2013 SRX, all of which debut next year. You can find out more about it by watching the video above, but according to a GM presser, the system will offer several industry “firsts” including

Proximity Sensing: As the user’s hand approaches the LCD screen, command icons appear. Icons can be customized and arranged by consumers to improve ease of use.

Haptic Feedback: Buttons on the fully capacitive faceplate pulse when pressed to acknowledge the driver’s commands and helps keep the driver’s eyes on the road.

Multi-Touch Hand Gestures: interactive motions (tap, flick, swipe and spread) popularized by smartphones and tablets allow tasks on the LCD screen, such as scrolling lists, zooming maps and searching favorites to be easily accomplished.

12.3 in. LCD reconfigurable gauge cluster (on select models) offers four selectable displays – Simple, Enhanced, Balanced and Performance – that can mix traditional vehicle data such as a speedometer and fuel gauge with navigation, entertainment and 3D vehicle image.

Natural Speech Recognition lets consumers speak logically with fewer specific commands to recall stored media or input navigation destinations. CUE’s text-to-speech feature will also allow consumers to receive text messages by system voice and to send recorded text messages in return.

Linux operating system, “open” software platform and ARM 11 3-core processor, each operating at 400 million of instructions (mips) per second. This hardware setup offers 3.5 times more processing power than current infotainment systems, and allow developers to write applications to CUE that be downloaded by consumers.

Though not unique to the XTS, GM is using the forthcoming model to highlight the system, and has released pictures of the production interior. Which makes a certain amount of sense, considering that Cadillac has long considered the XTS an “inside-out” design, focusing on luxurious appointments rather than dynamic performance or bold exterior looks. And that emphasis continues, as XTS marketing manager Patrick Nally tells Automotive News [sub]

A lot of people will not consider Cadillac that buy Mercedes or BMW… We will really impress people vis-a-vis the back seats of those cars.

Now, you might think that quote, with its import-conquering swagger, might be emphasizing how well Nally expects the XTS to do on the retail market… but it’s not. Quite the contrary, as it turns out. Here’s the full passage:

Speaking of the XTS, Nally said “the black car business is important to us.”

“A lot of people will not consider Cadillac that buy Mercedes or BMW,” he said. “They do not put us on their shopping list. There is an opportunity to get the right people in the vehicle who would not otherwise” be sitting in a Cadillac.

Nally said the appointments in the livery model will be nearly identical to the high-quality appointments in the retail version of the XT

In other words, the XTS is going to conquer the consumer market, by replacing the now-extinct Town Car as the livery car of choice… and given that its main competition will be a version of the Lincoln MKT, it might just have an opportunity on its hands. Assuming, of course, that private consumers are going to want to buy a vehicle that they mainly know from livery fleets. Fleet-sales-as-marketing is a ploy we hear fairly regularly, but thus far there’s not a lot of evidence that it works especially well. Particularly in the luxury space, where exclusivity is an important factor. But I suppose that this is what Cadillac meant when it said the XTS would replace the DTS and STS… it’s not a true exclusive flagship, but an everyday luxury car with a cosseting interior.

Automotive News [sub] says that “the chopping and stretching” of the ATS will “be handled by approved coachbuilders,” and it’s likely already underway. In fact, earlier this week when I was at Milford Proving Grounds, I not only saw several camo’d XTS prototypes testing, but also what appeared to be a long-wheelbase mule with a stretched Buick LaCrosse body. Whether it was a stretched XTS mule or a China-bound LaCrosse long-wheelbase model wasn’t clear, but it seems safe to say that the Epsilon II platform is going to spawn some form of LWB sedan. And, with expectations for the XTS already blunted by its humble underpinnings and Akerson’s seeming diss, a stolid, interior-centric, fleet-oriented model seems to be a logical approach for the XTS. Too bad that orientation is a bit at odds with Cadillac’s dynamically-driven “Red Blooded Luxury” branding approach.

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IBM Studies Navigation That Takes You Where The Advertisers Want You Fri, 30 Sep 2011 20:08:59 +0000

Quick, what’s the point of having a navigation system in your car? To get where you want to be going, right? Well, IBM has another idea: maybe instead of taking you where you want to go, navigation systems should be offering to take you where a paying advertiser wants you to go. Say, right past their shop, for example. Popular Science quotes from one of IBM’s patent applications

Conventional route planning systems determine optimal routes based on different preferred conditions, including minimizing travel time or minimizing the distance traveled. By focusing on optimal route determination, the known route planning systems fail to consider non-optimal routes whose presentation to travelers may have value to other parties.

So, it’s not quite to the point of your nav system saying “I can’t let you not pass a Starbucks, Dave,” but in the future your navigation could strongly suggest that, rather than going to the farmer’s market, you stop by the supermarket that happens to pay IBM the most.

PopSci explains

The system would work by collecting fees from retailers, which would then be used to assign a preferential weight for certain way points along a given route. IBM software would figure out a new route that incorporates that way point, and present it to the driver as the “recommended route.” This sub-optimal route couldn’t be too inconvenient — the patent application discusses limiting how far out of the way a recommended route could go — but it might not be the most direct route, nor the fastest. If the driver does actually take the fee-inspired route, then IBM could levy an additional fee for this successful misdirection.

Because sometimes it’s not best to focus on solely serving the end-user. Especially when “third party” firms will pay big money to redirect the hapless end-user to their products. It’s almost as if IBM has learned a thing or two from Automobile magazine

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GM Drops Proposed OnStar Policy Changes Tue, 27 Sep 2011 17:15:36 +0000

Under attack from privacy advocates and US Senators, Onstar will be dropping plans to automatically track vehicles that are not subscribed to its service, and will make post-cancellation tracking an opt-in option, rather than opt-out. A GM statement reads:

DETROIT – OnStar announced today it is reversing its proposed Terms and Conditions policy changes and will not keep a data connection to customers’ vehicles after the OnStar service is canceled.

OnStar recently sent e-mails to customers telling them that effective Dec. 1, their service would change so that data from a customer vehicle would continue to be transmitted to OnStar after service was canceled – unless the customer asked for it to be shut off.

“We realize that our proposed amendments did not satisfy our subscribers,” OnStar President Linda Marshall said. “This is why we are leaving the decision in our customers’ hands. We listened, we responded and we hope to maintain the trust of our more than 6 million customers.”

If OnStar ever offers the option of a data connection after cancellation, it would only be when a customer opted-in, Marshall said. And then OnStar would honor customers’ preferences about how data from that connection is treated.

Maintaining the data connection would have allowed OnStar to provide former customers with urgent information about natural disasters and recalls affecting their vehicles even after canceling their service. It also would have helped in planning future services, Marshall said.

“We regret any confusion or concern we may have caused,” Marshall said.

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Onstar Responds To Privacy Concerns. Again. Still. Sat, 24 Sep 2011 16:46:41 +0000

Concerns over privacy have haunted GM’s OnStar business for as long as it’s been around, and responses like this video have become something of an annual routine for OnStar’s executives. The latest round of furor involves changes to OnStar’s policies, which the New York Times describes thusly

The first regards what happens when a customer cancels the service. Until now, when OnStar service stopped, so did the vehicle’s two-way communications system. As of Dec. 1, however, that will not necessarily be the case. Vehicles of owners who no longer subscribe could still be monitored via the system’s still-active two-way cellular link.

The second policy change concerns the potential use of the data collected by OnStar, which includes information like the vehicle’s speed and location, current odometer reading, driver seat-belt use and air-bag deployment. Under the new terms, OnStar reserves the right to share that information with other companies and organizations, even data culled from motorists who no longer subscribe to the service but who have left the two-way communications connection open.

Of course, OnStar says GM customers can opt out of the service, but it’s making the case that by only sharing anonymous data, it can limit meaningful privacy concerns. But OnStar doesn’t exist in a vacuum, and as it continues to sell Americans on the notion that security is worth sacrificing some sense of privacy for, it will find itself increasingly pulled into a national debate.

OnStar’s execs are clearly walking a line here, as there’s no doubt OnStar-provided data is used in a number of ways that they argue is intended to benefit the customer. Monitoring usage patterns in the Chevy Volt is one example. Allowing vehicle owners to spy on their kids and spouses is another. But by pushing these services, OnStar finds itself at the cutting edge of a profound national debate on the balance between privacy and security that has been simmering just below the national consciousness in the decade since 9/11.

OnStar is clearly aligning itself with the side of security, not only offering nanny services to its users, but now giving them nanny powers over people who use their cars as well. In the short term, this has been a strong play: history shows that OnStar has picked the winning side in the debate, as most security/privacy tradefoffs since 9/11 have been decided in favor of security. But as measures like pay-per-mile vehicle tracking gain political momentum (the talk in DC is that government tracking of every vehicle is “unavoidable” in the middle-to-long-term), a backlash may well be brewing.

The problem with picking any one side of a fundamental political tradeoff is that eventually your side overreaches, sparking a backlash. When pay-per-mile taxation becomes a serious policy proposal, a political near-inevitability in the next ten years, all of the slippery concessions to security-over-privacy that led up to government tracking of every vehicle in America will be seen in a very different light. OnStar (and its analogues, which are spreading throughout the industry) will clearly be identified as a poster boy for the tradeoff between privacy and security, and faced with mandatory government tracking, it’s hard to see Americans remaining in love with the idea of voluntary tracking. Already the backlash is brewing, and public responses to privacy concerns will be a fact of life for firms like OnStar. But then, that’s just a part of the cost of doing business when you’re selling services that prey on paranoia, and asks customers to trust your benevolent gaze more than the often-terrifying randomness of the universe.

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Hammer Time: Should I Stay or Should I Go? Fri, 16 Sep 2011 17:04:17 +0000

Cars have lost a lot since the 1990’s. How many of you remember ashtrays, crank windows, base AM/FM radios and motorized seatbelts? It used to be that little headlight wipers were a sure sign of an upscale ride along with glossy wood trim and a CD changer in the trunk. It was a Yuppie heaven back then.

You wanted good music? Gotta get at least a cassette player and why not throw in some flimsy cupholders that are just big enough for a twelve ounce Coke?

A lot has gone away since the days of Cadillac Allantes and Chrysler Imperials. But much more remains with us. Today’s cars have a ton of 1990’s luxuries as standard equipment: Cruise, ABS, Traction Control, CD Players, Keyless Entry and Anti-theft Alarm Systems. Even the once lauded ‘Power Package’ of power windows, door locks, and mirrors is now standard in all but the cheapest of models (and the Lotus Elise).

So today’s questions for the TTAC faithful are, “What Should Stay?” and “What Should Go?” in these next ten years. Should nav systems be integrated into our cell phones? Will CD’s offer as poor of a return for the audiophile as they already do at the bank? That one’s an easy answer. But what about CVT’s vs. conventional automatics? Eight cylinders vs. sixes? Push buttons vs. key fobs vs.???

The future isn’t now. So give your best guess.

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When Will We Get A Decent iPod Interface? Thu, 15 Sep 2011 17:49:44 +0000

Click here to view the embedded video.

[Ed: The above video is not intended as a specific example of the problems we faced, but a general illustration of the wider issue]

While on a junket for the Hyundai Veloster I was treated to yet another instance of The Most Infuriating Thing About New Cars – the lack of any decent way to connect your iPod to the in-car entertainment system.

As TTAC Editor-In-Chief Ed Niedermeyer and I toured Oregon’s various scenic byways in the newest Hyundai, our musical selections were repeatedly interrupted due various errors, whereby Ed’s iPhone was unable to sync, refused to completely sync, or randomly re-synced. Our attempts at listening to the new Bon Iver album, or Burn After Rolling (the listenable mixtape made by limp-dick rapper Wiz Khalifa) were interrupted by a blast from XM’s pop station, as the iPod integration took a giant shit on us. Nothing spoils the conversation like having your ambient rock or gangsta rap interrupted by Katy Perry or Lady Gaga.

In the pre-USB port days, there were two options – you could use an “iTrip”, a crude device that plugged into a cigarette lighter and used a small radio transmitter to broadcast your music over a dormant frequency. Tuning your radio to said frequency allowed you to have your own private radio station, although it was frequently interrupted by transmissions from competing commercial stations, especially on road trips where frequencies changed every so often.

The other option was the auxiliary port – a 3.5 mm audio jack that plugged into the car stereo and allowed you to control your iPod without any aural interruptions like an iTrip. The only problem is that these were extremely rare in the pre-USB era, and have failed to become ubiquitous.

My guess is that the USB/touch-screen integration is a response to fears of possible litigation via crashes caused by distracted drivers, who could ostensibly fiddle with their iPods while it’s plugged in to the auxiliary port. BMW once offered an iPod integration system that forced you to create pre-made playlists and didn’t allow for any browsing of the music library, which I suspect was done for this reason.

The big problem is that most iPod integration systems are varying degrees of garbage. Currently, Ford’s SYNC system is the worst, despite its ubiquity, and every Ford product I review, I try and bash it. I would stop, but I’ve yet to have a SYNC system that works properly, without being a massive distraction and malfunctioning on multiple occasions. None of my passengers, from my technologically savvy 18-year-old brother, to my own friends (who are supposed to be “connected”, “plugged-in” Gen-Y types) can figure it out, and if they do, they inevitably get frustrated with the confusing menus, lack of a “back” button (a crucial feature when your iPod has 10,000 songs and you don’t want to scroll through endless menus to find one damn song) and the occasional disconnection because “SYNC failed to connect to your portable audio device”.

For all the marketing pap about reaching out to a generation of buyers who care less and less about cars, the one thing the OEMs need to do is the one thing they are constantly fucking up. For Gen-Y, the most important part of the driving experience has nothing to do with dynamic. They just want to listen to music painlessly. And not get violated at the gas pump . Being able to drive something with a bit of panache isn’t a bad thing either.

Hyundai managed a gentleman’s C on those criteria. Let’s see who gets an A+.

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Want To Spy On The Kids/Spouse? Onstar Has The Answer! Mon, 01 Aug 2011 19:11:26 +0000 GM’s Onstar division has long raised privacy concerns among the professionally paranoid, but now it’s putting all that observational power into the hands of consumers, with a pilot program called “Family Link.”  Described in GM’s presser as “a new optional service that will explore ways subscribers can stay connected to their loved ones,” the service includes

  • Vehicle Locate: The subscriber can log on to the Family Link website to view a map with the vehicle’s exact location at any time.
  • Vehicle Location Alert: Subscribers can set up email or text message notifications to let them know the location of their loved one’s vehicle. They can choose the day, time and frequency of the alerts.

But that’s not all: if the pilot proves that consumers are willing to pay for the right to surveil their loved ones,

Future considerations for the pilot include Speed Alert, Boundary Alert and Arrival/Departure Alert.

Forget Big Brother… with this system, you can be Big Daddy, in the center of your own little family-sized panopticon. From making sure the kids stay out of trouble (“Say, son, what were you doing in downtown Detroit last night?”) to checking up on your loving spouse (“Honey, why did you say you were going to the gym, when you just parked for an hour at the Slee-Zee Snooze Motel?”), it’s how today’s on-the-go families foster an atmosphere of suspicion and mistrust. Because why let the government have all the voyeuristic fun?

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Do Driver Aids Make Us Worse Drivers? Thu, 28 Jul 2011 18:49:31 +0000

Former TVR owner Peter Wheeler used to explain the lack of airbags in his firm’s high-powered sportscars by arguing drivers would be safer if he installed a metal spike in the middle of each steering wheel. That was back in the late 1990s and early 2000s… since then, the rise of adaptive cruise control, “attention assist” systems, collision-sensing brake pre-loading and more have only made his critique all the more provocative. And, according to research cited in a Wired Magazine report, Wheeler’s philosophy seems to have a strong basis in science.

“The point the automakers are making, which is true, is that they go to extreme lengths to make these systems work and extremely reliable,” [Stanford University's Clifford] Nass said. “The reliability on these systems is very high. If you have automatic cruise control, it’s not extremely often you have to jump into the fray.”

Therein lies the problem. We come to count on our cars to keep us out of trouble, even in situations where the technology isn’t designed to.

“Road hazards other than the car in front of you are so rare, especially on the highway where these adaptive cruise control systems would be in play, that they would, over time, encourage a complacency that undermines safety,” said Erik Blaser, a psychology professor at the University of Massachusetts, Boston, who studies vision and perception. “You stop paying attention to the driving.”

Though these “semiautonomous” systems are sold as safety equipment, researchers argue that they create a sense of reliance that actually makes drivers less safe (unlike “secret” safety systems like stability control and ABS, which operate consistently without the driver’s knowledge). And, somewhat counterintuitively, these researchers argue that the rise of semiautonomous driver aids actually increases the need for life-long driver eduation.

The report notes:

“The functionality of the technology is very good at this point, but how do you teach people how to use it appropriately?” MIT AgeLab and New England University Transportation Center researcher Bryan]Reimer said. “Reading the owner’s manual is not going to provide the information that you need.”

Instead, he suggests ongoing, lifetime driver training and an end to the American tradition of driver’s education only for new drivers. Auto dealerships should spend more time working with customers to fully explain the limits of automotive safety technology before letting them drive home. Looking further ahead of the curve, cars could one day actively detect drivers’ states — whether they’re tired or distracted, for instance — and allow the use of semiautonomous safety technologies when appropriate.

The limitations of active safety systems must be second nature to drivers, said Nass. Drivers must know what the technology can and can’t do so they don’t rely upon it in situations where it won’t work.

“It’s always a problem with partially autonomous systems,” he said. “You’ll always have the issue of remembering what it does and what it doesn’t do, and in real time we don’t want people pondering that.”


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Another Cautionary Tale Of GPS Dependence Tue, 26 Jul 2011 21:13:43 +0000

In addition to the recent tales (and sitcom gags) of GPS units leading hapless drivers into bodies of water, we have a new twist on the theme: GPS units leading hapless drivers astray in Death Valley. NPR reports

After a long day, [Donna] Cooper and her family asked “Nell,” the GPS, for the shortest route back to their home.

“Please proceed to the highlighted route,” Nell said.

But what came next did not compute. The GPS told them to go 550 feet, then turn right, Cooper says.

“Well, at 550 feet it was like a little path, and then it was like, go a quarter of a mile and turn left. There was nothing there. She had me running in circles for hours and hours and hours,” she says.

A park ranger explains that this happens “a couple times a year now,” including one incident two years ago in which a mother and her son were lost on an abandoned mining road for five days and the boy died. Rangers are now working with GPS firms to update their data on small and closed-down roads, but say no amount of work will ever replace common sense when it comes to navigating desert roads. Speaking of which, what happened to Cooper’s family?

According to NPR:

A search and rescue helicopter found Cooper’s family after three days of being lost. Everyone survived, except Nell, the GPS. But that’s not what Cooper was calling her by then.

“Called her a few names,” she says. “A couple four-letter words.”

And yet, Cooper has not lost faith. She has a new GPS now, named Rosie.

Despite identifying a lack of common sense as the basic problem, NPR never asks Ms. Cooper to reflect on her experience, and how it has made her relationship with “Rosie” different than her relationship with “Nell.” Could she imagine this happening to her again, or does she take a more personal interest in navigating (and possibly, by extension, driving) now? After all, dependence on electronic gizmos is becoming an increasingly common cause of inattentive driving, which can kill you in a crash as well as strand you in the desert. And as this Mercedes commercial points out, automakers have every interest in cultivating your dependence on all kinds of systems that ultimately encourage inattentive driving.

Perhaps I’m just fascinated by anyone who can have that much trust in a computer copilot while piloting several tons of high-powered steel around. I regularly drive vehicles with and without GPS, and I admit that navigation can be addictive. But I generally prefer to use it as a map rather than a having it read directions to me, because I don’t feel comfortable blindly accepting that “the machine knows,” as Michael Scott puts it. The downside is that visually navigating a GPS screen can be a huge distraction… which is why I try to go over my route before I go somewhere new, and only use the screen to quickly orient myself. In other words, I can’t imagine getting lost in the desert by blindly following my GPS in circles… but I can imagine getting honked at because I’m looking at my screen and not at the light that just turned green. And you know what? I feel fairly comfortable with the tradeoff.

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Enforcement Works In The War On Distraction… But Only To A Point Tue, 12 Jul 2011 17:08:09 +0000

Transportation Secretary and Supreme Allied Commander in the War On Distraction Ray LaHood is quite chuffed about initial pilot program results for his latest offensive against in-car cell phone use, and he’s taking to the airwaves to declare victory. The programs, modeled on the “Click It Or Ticket” and “Over The Limit, Under Arrest” initiatives combined an advertising blitz and waves of enforcement to crack down on the behavior, but more importantly to send the message that distracted driving is as serious a problem as drunk driving or not wearing a seatbelt. Thanks to the relative success of these earlier programs, the DOT has a strong template for its pilot anti-distracted driving campaign, the enforcement components of which took place in April, July, and October 2010 and March-April 2011. But was the “Phone In One Hand, Ticket In The Other” program actually as successful as LaHood claims?

Based on data from the report’s finding [PDF], it seems fairly clear that the program made some difference… but the contrast between the results in Hartford and the results in Syracuse are a little surprising. New York has had a ban on in-car hand-held cell phone use since 2001, and accordingly Syracuse’s initial numbers were relatively low compared to Hartford’s, where a “hands free” law has only been on the books since 2005. Unsurprisingly, Hartford saw the largest declines that can be attributed to the program, with observations of drivers holding phones to their ears dropping from 6.8% to 2.9%, nearly double the drop observed in Syracuse.

Another interesting result is the seemingly organic drops in in-car handheld cell phone use in the control groups, because here the dynamic reverses itself. New York, with its long-standing ban on handheld cell phone use saw stronger decreases in the control group than Conneticut with its more recent ban. As NHTSA’s report puts it

Generally there was a steady decline in the comparison sites, as well. This is a promising finding and suggests that social norms towards phone use and texting while driving may be shifting, becoming less acceptable behaviors to the public.

This is difficult to argue with, but in the context of evaluating the program’s effectiveness, it almost proves that the program was unnecessary. Connecticut’s more recent law meant there were more lower-hanging fruit for enforcement officers in Hartford, but their efforts made less of an impact in the control cities of Bridgeport/Stamford. Meanwhile, New York’s results were less dramatic in the targeted area (Syracuse) but the organic declines in Albany were stronger than any in Connecticut. The lesson? Media and enforcement blitzes do make a difference, but so does passing a law and simply waiting. The longer a law has been in place, the more diminished the returns will be in the targeted area… and the stronger the declines will be in non-targeted areas.

Weigh these results against the not-inconsiderable costs of the program (anyone know what police make per hour on average?) and the results of the program are a little less overwhelmingly impactful than LaHood makes them out to be. Like any other change in social norms, the key ingredient seems to be not advertising dollars nor cops on the beat, but simply time. The longer a law is on the books, the more it seems to be respected… and at a certain point, more advertising and enforcement seem to deliver diminishing returns. On the other hand, the program does seem to be effective at accelerating declines in observed handheld cell phone use… and given the human cost of distracted driving, it does feel a bit churlish to get too worked up about half a million taxpayer dollars (not counting the opportunity cost of dedicated law enforcement hours). So yes, the program was a success (certainly compared to LaHood’s annual hand-wringing “summits” on distracted driving)… but let’s not pretend that anything will be more effective at changing behavior than laws and the progress of time.

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Ford’s Quality Fix Is In Wed, 22 Jun 2011 14:22:09 +0000

Ford’s President of the Americas Mark “MKF” Fields (sorry, the joke is just too funny to let go of) is responding to recent allegations of slipping quality by Consumer Reports and JD Power, by telling Bloomberg that

We’re largely back on track on some of these early issues

He’s referring specifically to issues with the MyFordTouch system that has been the central issue in the recent quality flap, and the fix for that isn’t particularly complicated.

Ford has reworked software on MyFordTouch to prevent random rebooting that had afflicted the system, said Sue Cischke, vice president of environmental and safety engineering. The touch controls also have been recalibrated to respond more quickly to a driver’s touch, she said.

Ford is encouraging dealers to spend as much as 40 minutes training drivers to use the system.

“If you’re trying to figure it out as you’re driving, obviously that’s not a good thing to do,” Cischke said.

Ford’s problem, it turns out, isn’t so much a product quality problem as a customer quality problem… because why would consumers need 40 minutes of training on a system Ford insists they are “demanding” (despite, it must be pointed out, the government’s murmured objections)? Unfortunately for Ford, Michael Karesh argues convincingly that Ford’s quality problems go beyond the MyFordTouch issues… but because its quality was so weak before Mulally took over, at least Ford (and the “PR friendly” auto media) can continue to claim “improvement.”

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Nissan Leaf Owner Exposes CarWings Privacy Issue Mon, 13 Jun 2011 16:05:36 +0000

Since Nissan’s PR and communication folks are probably having a busy morning anyway, we thought we’d bring this video to their attention. According to this apparently quite tech-savvy Leaf owner, the Leaf’s CarWings system will automatically send your location data to any third-party RSS feed you sign up for. As he puts it in the video

“There’s a lot of personal data there. I’m not sure if you really want Fox News to know exactly where you’re at, how fast you’re driving, that kind of thing… when you read those RSS feeds in your car, you might want to think twice about hitting that button”

Why would signing up for an RSS feed require that constantly-updated locational data be sent to the RSS provider? The video’s maker assumes the data is for “CarWings internal use” and yet he shows that it gets sent to third parties. We know GM monitors Chevy Volt user data anonymously through Onstar, but one assumes that this kind of data is fairly well protected from third parties. In the case of the Leaf, that may not be the case. We’d sure like to know if this is true, and why…

[UPDATE: Nissan tells us: "Owners have to opt in or agree to share their data every time they sign in.  If they don’t, then they pass on the benefit as well.  They will however, lose any remote control or data logging capability but the choice is in the hand of the driver every time."]

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Quote Of The Day: This Car Is Not A Mobile Device Edition Thu, 09 Jun 2011 22:48:19 +0000

I’m not in the business of helping people Tweet better, I’m not in the business of helping people post to Facebook better. My job is to make sure we keep people safe behind the wheel. I’m not going to deny the fact that people want these things. They do. Especially the generation behind us. They’re used to being connected 24 hours a day.

A car is not a mobile device — a car is a car. We will not take a backseat while new telematics and infotainment systems are introduced. There is too much potential for distraction of drivers.

NHTSA Administrator David Strickland took the war on distraction to the enemy in a speech to an auto technology conference, reports Bloomberg. With nearly every manufacturer racing towards ever greater implementation of connectivity, communication and entertainment systems in cars, Strickland’s rhetorical line in the sand foreshadows a serious confrontation between industry and government. Either that, or this is just Ray LaHood-style hot air calculated to make it look like something’s happening.

In any case, the industry has yet to develop a concerted strategy to deal with what has thus far been a largely rhetorical government assault on its new(ish) cash cow. But if Strickland keeps suggesting specific action, the OEMs (who are pledging cooperation) will want to agree on a line of their own (with statistics to back it up) where they can stand together. Thus far that line seems to be “hands free,” but the statistics there don’t seem strong enough to hold off a regulatory offensive. On the other hand, this is clearly another one of those policy discussions that draws a wide variety of responses


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Ford: Quality Is Job One… Again Tue, 07 Jun 2011 18:18:31 +0000

I designed TrueDelta’s Car Reliability Survey to provide information an average of ten months ahead of the established annual surveys. Early last December we shared with TTAC readers that Early data on the Ford Fiesta is not good.” Then, in early March, we stated about the 2011 Fiesta and the 2010 Taurus that Ford does not appear to have tested either model thoroughly enough.” The late February release on the TrueDelta site went a step farther, asking, “Is Ford slipping?” The answer last week from Ford: “Yes, but we’re going to fix it.”

The official Ford line, as conveyed through Automotive News: we’re being open about our “tech glitches” because, in the words of CEO Alan Mulally, “You can’t manage a secret.” But what is Ford trying to manage by being open about quality problems? Not the problems themselves—it’s possible to be open about problems inside a company without going to the press about them. Instead, they’re trying to manage something outside the company: public perceptions.

Why now? Because later this month J.D. Power will release its annual Initial Quality Survey (IQS) results, and Ford knows that its scores are going to be significantly worse than in the past. The reason stated in the Automotive News article: glitches in the new “MyFord Touch” touchscreen-based control system. Because the IQS combines usability problems and mechanical problems (something we’ve criticized the survey for in the past), a hard to use control system will harm a car’s score even if nothing is technically wrong with it. BMW’s scores have suffered ever since it introduced iDrive.

The article refers to Consumer Reports as well, and drew on their auto chief David Champion for a couple of quotes. But, in noting that CR dropped its recommendation for the Ford Edge “in part because of the controls,” the author doesn’t seem to realize that CR’s road test evaluations and its reliability survey are two entirely separate entities. While MyFord Touch might fail the former, it could very well have no impact on the latter.

What will have an impact on CR’s reliability survey results, which will be next be updated in October: the problems noted in TrueDelta’s survey, and that aren’t mentioned at all in the Automotive News article despite Ford’s “openness.” Things like the chrome finish flaking off the taillights on the Taurus and Fiestas that won’t start, whose fuel gauges don’t read correctly, or (in fewer but more serious cases) whose dual clutch automated manual transmissions fail. The Taurus problem is admittedly minor, but it nevertheless indicates a faulty product development process. Proper testing would have discovered that the finish would peel off the taillights in less than a year. Similarly, proper testing would have found that a poor ground would lead to no-starts in the Fiesta, and that the fuel gauges in the car were often failing to read correctly. If these common problems that appear early on were missed, what else has been missed?

These glitches aren’t entirely a new development. Earlier, the 2007 Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX suffered from very common failures to the seals of their AWD units, often multiple times with the same car—and this problem persisted for at least three model years. The 2008 Taurus has commonly had problems with its front struts. And the revision to the Fusion for 2010 created transmission driveability problems where none had existed before—and which have proven hard to fix. But the Fiesta has been the least reliable new Ford in some time, with multiple common problems (that have nothing to do with MyFord Touch). And as the first Ford of Europe car to be transplanted to North America under Mulally’s “One Ford” program it could presage problems with the 2012 Focus and upcoming Escape and Fusion replacements.

Someone within Ford is certainly aware of these other problems that have nothing to do with “tech glitches.” Mulally himself is likely aware of them; otherwise, he’s got an even bigger problem on his hands. If Mulally is aware of these problems, he realizes that they will impact the IQS this month and Consumer Reports survey results in the fall. But Ford’s professed openness didn’t extend to discussing these other problems with Automotive News. Instead, they focused on debugging MyFord Touch and installing new robots to improve the precision of panel fits. It’s not hard to imagine why. This way, when those poor scores come out, journalists and the broader public they inform might think that they’re due to buggy software and panel fits, and not anything more serious.

Ford might buy themselves a little time this way. But if they want to maintain the reputation for quality they worked so hard to achieve, they must address the true scope of the problem. Mo’ better robots aren’t going to do the trick now any more than they did for Roger Smith’s GM. Their product development process needs fixing.

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FLIR, License Plate Recognition, and Small Block, Oh My! Tue, 31 May 2011 18:03:20 +0000

AOL’s Translogic [via PopSci] takes a look at the LAPD’s brand-spankety new Chevy Caprice PPV, the born-again Pontiac G8 that you can’t buy at a dealership. But rather than looking at the Caprice’s cop car-creaming performance (as did the Michigan State Police), this report focuses on the LAPD’s high-tech toys… which could just make the Caprice’s V8, rear-drive abilities less necessary than ever. Still, between the Holden-powered, rear-drive performance, the footprint-spying night vision camera and the automatic license plate recognition system, the Caprice PPV will probably make you think twice about speeding the next time you’re visiting the City of Angels.

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But Can Your Car Manage Diabetes? Fri, 20 May 2011 14:54:04 +0000

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Where Does Distraction End And Reality Begin? Sun, 08 May 2011 15:38:59 +0000

So, will this MIT-developed “virtual dashboard” render that car you’re about to hit? After all, a three-dimensional representation of the world on your dashboard seems like it would be at least as eye-catching as… you know, reality. And, believe it or not, according to PopSci this is actually a development of a program that was determined to be too distracting. This system, named AIDA 2.0, was developed from

a little robotic dashboard companion called AIDA (for Affective Intelligent Driving Agent), an MIT creation that essentially read a driver’s facial expressions to gauge mood and inferred route and destination preferences through social interaction with the driver. Apparently that was deemed too distracting, so now MIT is back with AIDA 2.0, which swaps the dashboard robot for a massive 3-D interactive map that covers the entire dashboard–because that’s not distracting at all.

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The Truth About MyFord Touch Fri, 06 May 2011 15:24:34 +0000
Editor’s Note: Ladies and gentlemen, please welcome Byron Hurd of SpeedSportLife, in his TTAC debut.

There has been an almost-palpable sensation of glee propagating through the various import-leaning car communities I frequent. For nearly two years, they’ve had to sit back and listen to the other guys relentlessly gushing about domestic brand turnarounds. With only a few notable speed bumps, it has been a pretty good run so far for post-bailout Detroit. Market share is up; buyers are coming back; product is improving–a sad state of affairs for the import fanboy. Then, out of nowhere, those cunning deviants over at Motor Trend—known of course for setting the magazine landscape ablaze with their out-of-left-field criticisms and take-no-prisoners, “gotcha”-style journalism—dropped a Molotov cocktail into this Texas-desert-dry landscape of domestic love.

The 2011 Explorer, they said, quite simply sucks.
“Now hold on,” you might protest, “they didn’t say that.” And maybe they didn’t in so many words, but as Jonny’s follow-up makes clear, it’s pretty much how they felt about the example they tested. And really, does it matter what anybody said? The finishing order of a comparison test is much like that of a race (or if you’re an Orioles fan like me, the AL East standings). First place is the winner, second place is the first loser, and last place is reserved for cars purchased only by the uneducated, unworthy co-workers whom you spend so much time slandering in the company of your Audi-driving Internet friends. I can only speculate as to the exact details (I don’t drive an Audi) but I’d assume the conversations largely revolve around themes such as poverty, racial discrimination, and—like any discussion about anything on the Internet, ever—pornography.

But I digress. While much to-do was made about their Explorer’s pre-production status, there was another recurring theme that I’d rather talk about, one that has been in the news a bit lately in flammable proximity to phrases like “technical service bulletin” and “frustrated owners.” I’m referring of course to MyFord Touch, Ford’s latest and flashiest SYNC-cessory.

Yes, accessory. For all the press Ford has been getting, positive or negative, there’s a serious absence of understanding as to what MyFord Touch actually is, and for that matter, what it does. MyFord Touch is essentially an extension of MyFord, the interior settings customization option that Ford has been offering for several model years in some variation or another. MyFord lets you select ambient lighting colors and brightness, display functions and colors, and other nifty settings that have little or nothing to do with anything related to the functionality of the car.

MyFord Touch extends that customization to the gauge cluster and infotainment system and offers you a pretty LCD touch-screen (hence the “Touch”) interface from which to control, well, almost everything. But wait, there’s more. Depending on the car and the trim, the Touch option also replaces many center stack controls with either raised, touch-sensitive faux-buttons or a glossy, piano-black touch panel on which more frequently-needed controls such as audio adjustments, HVAC settings and their various on/off switches are duplicated.

Remember too that all of these functions can be controlled by voice through the SYNC interface—triple redundancy. And that sums it up pretty well. By the time you’ve optioned your Ford up to the point where Touch even enters into the equation, you have probably already purchased at least two alternative control interfaces. That’s because MyFord Touch is not SYNC. It’s just a pretty interface that adds another layer of visual panache and techno-gee-whizardry to an already robust infotainment package. You don’t need MyFord Touch if you don’t want MyFord Touch.

And why would you? Well, for one thing, it’s cool. It’s the automotive entertainment equivalent of the iPad—pointless, redundant and expensive. You may know this concept by its more common colloquialism: luxury. That’s what MyFord Touch is, a luxury. It’s a premium option designed for buyers who need to be seen with an expensive gadget, and like any expensive gadget, it will have its share of growing pains. Just learning how to touch the screen properly takes practice (The trick? Just fat-finger it. Hovering delicately over the option you want, waiting for the road surface and suspension to fall into perfect harmony before jabbing daintily at the ¼”-thick bar representing your favorite Lady Gaga single is an exercise in anal-retentive futility. Aim in the general direction of what you want and mash that sucker with ham-fisted authority. You’re welcome.)

That’s not to say that MyFord Touch itself is faultless. Learning the proper technique for prodding at the interface is just the start. Even with several weeks’ worth Touch-equipped press cars under my belt, I still have to stop and think about what it is I’m trying to do. Sometimes, the interface is so unintuitive that I jab at the SYNC button with frustration and curtly inform the synthetic slave girl behind the dash what exactly it is I want “her” to do.

There are plenty of “hey, neat” moments too. The touch-screen provides a handy interface for managing Bluetooth devices, allowing you to connect multiple gadgets simultaneously, assigning each a priority and function. Want to stream music from your iPod touch but make calls from your Blackberry? Stream music from your Droid but use your passenger’s iPhone for phone calls? No sweat. It’s all right there in the phone settings menu. Tech geeks can tweak to their hearts’ content.

Well-executed too are the customizable LCD displays flaking the speedometer (Certain models get only one, mounted dead-center. Focus buyers, I’m looking at you). They share the duties of the typical center-mounted multifunction display that has recently become somewhat of a staple. The left-side screen focuses on vehicle systems (tachometer, fuel economy display, trip info, vehicle health, etc.) and the right is a further extension of the infotainment system, allowing the driver to choose quickly from different audio/video sources or adjust those already selected using wheel-mounted buttons—yes, another layer of control.

The truth is, the story of MyFord Touch is much like that of any other fancy gadget. Early adopters get the worst of it, dealing with patches and updates and pesky issues that never seem to go away. Such is the way of modern software, unfortunately. To most of us, it’ll never matter. Nobody’s forcing it on us, and we’re content to choose something else. To fanboys, it’ll be a reminder of why they’re so certain that Ford can’t build a good car.

Hey, everybody needs something to hang on to.

Byron Hurd’s “Lord Byron” column can be found here at SpeedSportLife

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Quote Of The Day: On The Connected Car Edition Wed, 23 Mar 2011 21:50:20 +0000

Quoth Thilo Koslowski [via AN [sub]], principal automotive analyst at Gartner Research (and coiner of TTAC’s favorite new phrase, “the trough of disappointment”):

First of all, the car doesn’t really make a good personal computer, and, secondly, consumers don’t have to have a PC on four wheels. Ultimately, any type of Internet access in the future has to support the ownership experience of the vehicle; this is not about enabling me to have the same experience I have on my laptop

Which is precisely why we find Nokia’s “Terminal Mode” protocol so compelling: it “lets cars be cars again.”

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