Why Ford Just Became A Software Company
Ford is upgrading its in-vehicle software on a huge scale, embracing all the customer expectations and headaches that come with the development lifecycle.
Sometime early next year, Ford will mail USB sticks to about 250,000 owners of vehicles with its advanced touchscreen control panel. The stick will contain a major upgrade to the software for that screen. With it, Ford is breaking from a history as old as the auto industry, one in which the technology in a car essentially stayed unchanged from assembly line to junk yard.
Ford is significantly changing what a driver or passenger experiences in its cars years after they’re built. And with it, Ford becomes a software company--with all the associated high customer expectations and headaches.
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Ford is making a major upgrade to its MyFord Touch interface, which is an in-dash touchscreen that offers controls for navigation, music, phone integration, and temperature. For has offered the touchscreen on select vehicles since the fall of 2010. The new code promises to speed up the system's response and un-clutter the interface, adding features and responding to complaints about version 1. Ford's also updating the Sync software that's behind the MyFord Touch interface, adding tablet integration and better voice response. Ford will offer this upgraded version on 2013 Escape, Flex, and Taurus models hitting showrooms early next year, as well as the upgrade for existing owners.
The update's addressing shortcomings of MyFord Touch 1.0--such as having buttons too small for use while driving and too much information on the screens--but this isn't an emergency move, Ford insists. Ford always planned to make improvements to the software over a car's life. "We plan to do it constantly," says Gary Jablonski, manager of Sync Platform Development.
Ford has done revisions of its Sync software before, but never anything on this scale. In the past, it has had customers log onto a website and download an upgrade to a USB drive that they then plug into their vehicle. Or they could bring their car to their dealer for the upgrade. But Ford wants more customers to get into this download-and-upgrade habit. That's why it's mailing out the USB sticks, as well as keeping the option to take the vehicle to a dealer for the upgrade. "We want customers to expect that about Sync," Jablonski says.
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One example of why such changes matter: Pandora, the online music streaming service, was a little-known startup when Ford launched its Sync software in 2007. As smartphones made Pandora a hit among young would-be buyers, Ford in 2010 added support for Pandora as one of the first smartphone apps integrated with Sync. Similarly, this update lets drivers connect their tablets to the Sync system, just as they can their smartphones, to access music and other apps using voice commands.