Ford is upgrading its in-vehicle software on a huge scale, embracing all the customer expectations and headaches that come with the development lifecycle.
What does it mean for Ford to become a software company? Most importantly, it means two different innovation cycles: one for the metal, one for the software.
It takes Ford about two-and-a-half years to plan, develop, and build a new car. But it can develop a new software interface in months--and update it again and again over the life of the car. When creating a hood, given the required stamping machinery and assembly line setup, manufacturers must set the design long before the car rolls off the line. Automakers can change software much closer to launch, though the code still faces rigorous testing.
Jablonski paints a picture: Imagine a fast-moving gear and a slow-moving gear, each of which must mesh at precisely the right moment to create a vehicle.
Ford’s upgrade also shows a timeless lesson of software: Version 1.0 is inevitably flawed, if only because until code lives in the real world, it'll have too many of some features and not enough of others. With the first version of MyFord Touch, drivers complained that there was just too much information--rarely used buttons for power users, for instance, were nearly as prominent as essential ones, like the radio volume.
The new version reacts to customer feedback by moving only the most used features to the foreground, and the fonts are up to 40% larger for the most important functions. In tests of the new software, "people are using words that I wouldn't expect, like 'calming,'" Jablonski says.
New Skills, Processes Required
Being a software company has also forced Ford to add new skills, which it has been doing over the past 10 years. Some of those were classic application development skills that a software company would have. Ford partnered with Microsoft to develop Sync, so Microsoft helped to "infuse Ford" with an understanding of what's needed to develop software, Jablonski says.
A second big thrust is for "human-machine interface," or HMI, engineers. These are people who study how people interact with technology. Ford has been cultivating these people from within since the early 2000s. HMI engineers come from a range of backgrounds, from software development to mechanical engineers. They're people who can live in worlds of art and science at once.
The biggest challenge, though, is deciding what goes in and what stays out of this software platform. "We essentially have a PC in the car, and there's no shortage of ideas of what we should do with that PC," Jablonski says.
And there's also no end. Unlike designing a new car or truck, where there are clear timelines when a new model comes out and where the development ends, and when work on the new model starts, the software cycle is less clear cut. "Unfortunately, there's no finish line in my job," Jablonski says.
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