Ford Navigates Rough Road Of Software Development

Its MyFord Touch upgrade this week, addressing customer complaints, is only the beginning of Ford's transformation to a software company.

Chris Murphy, Editor, InformationWeek

March 6, 2012

4 Min Read

The New York Times has a story focused on how complaints about Ford's touchscreen software led to a dip in the carmaker's quality rankings. Ford this week mailed out more than 300,000 USB sticks with a significant upgrade to that software aimed at addressing those complaints, in part by simplifying the interface to make the most used controls more prominent.

The Times story notes that Consumer Reports last week dropped Ford to 10th place on its Automaker Report Card, from fifth in 2011, and that Ford sunk to 23rd place, from fifth, in the initial quality survey by J. D. Power & Associates. The problems with MyFord Touch played a part in both those demotions. Quotes the Times:

“We expect that these improvements will put us back on track in the quality ratings,” said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president for global product development. “It’s more than just an update. This is a substantial upgrade.”

But the MyFord Touch upgrade is only one example of how Ford, more than any other automaker, has staked its future on its ability to develop great software. (See our past coverage, Why Ford Just Became A Software Company.)

Three other areas that the Times didn't address go well beyond this MyFord Touch upgrade, and show how Ford is pushing its software agenda:

1. Ford’s opening of a Silicon Valley software development center.

Ford plans to hire about 15 employees over the next couple of years for its new software development center in Palo Alto, a center that’s similar in concept to one GE is creating. The idea is that having people in the Valley will let Ford tap into the thinking of established software companies as well as startups. "This is where it's at" for software development, says T.J. Giuli, a technologist in Ford's R&D engineering group who is employee no. 1 for the center, relocating from Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters to open the center last month. Ford already has technology partnerships with MIT and the University of Michigan, and Giuli will use the center to build closer university ties on the West Coast.

2. Open source development platform to create app ecosystem around Ford cars.

Ford has created a software development kit for Android apps that gives developers read-only access to information coming from vehicles’ internal network and sensors, so that developers can use automotive data like GPS, speed, and vehicle sensors in their apps.

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The development platform, called OpenXC, is only for research today, with the first toolkit distributions going to researchers at MIT, Stanford, and the University of Michigan, plus select development partners, including HCL in India and Weather Underground in the U.S. A demo app from HCL lets a driver share a car's GPS location with select contacts and send email automatically to those contacts if the driver's running late. In a few months, Ford expects to release the toolkit more broadly. "Our intention is to let this be as open as possible," Giuli says.

It's a recognition that Ford itself can't come up with all the software innovations drivers will want, so it wants to make it easy and profitable for third parties.

3. A pledge to continually update software.

This is the most dramatic change to the carmaker's mindset. In the past, when a car rolled off the assembly line, Ford was done improving the vehicle except for making any changes deemed necessary (or mandated) in recalls for safety or quality. Now it says it plans to enhance the software over the life of each vehicle. Ford mailed USB sticks for the MyFord Touch upgrade--rather than relying on customers to download those upgrades--because the idea of upgrading vehicle software is still new, and because it wants to make sure as many customers as possible make this change, given the complaints. In the future, Ford will issue smaller upgrades only via its website, where drivers can download to their own USB and make the change. (Or they can have their dealers do it for them.)

Ford is breaking new ground with its in-vehicle software, and learning a lot about the software development cycle along the way. But the MyFord Touch experience shows something that Ford knew well going into the software business: Car owners will--understandably--be very unforgiving of sub-par software in their cars.

About the Author(s)

Chris Murphy

Editor, InformationWeek

Chris Murphy is editor of InformationWeek and co-chair of the InformationWeek Conference. He has been covering technology leadership and CIO strategy issues for InformationWeek since 1999. Before that, he was editor of the Budapest Business Journal, a business newspaper in Hungary; and a daily newspaper reporter in Michigan, where he covered everything from crime to the car industry. Murphy studied economics and journalism at Michigan State University, has an M.B.A. from the University of Virginia, and has passed the Chartered Financial Analyst (CFA) exams.

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