Ford Motor Company has just convincingly demonstrated that being an excellent industrial manufacturer doesn’t automatically mean that you are an excellent maker of digital technology. Despite Ford’s improvements in manufacturing quality, their overall ratings fell precipitously this year due solely to the poor software interaction on their dashboards. A recent article in the New York Times discusses Ford’s plummeting fall in user rankings this year, focusing the blame on their new touch screen interface.
MyFord Touch on new Ford Edge—heavily criticized in J.D. Power's research and "frustrating" according to Consumer Reports.
According to the article, J.D.Power, the auto industry arbiter, dropped Ford’s ranking from 5th to 23rd, and subsidiary Lincoln’s ranking from 8th to 17th place. J.D.Power acknowledges that both Ford and Lincoln’s fit and finish are excellent. It was the “annoying” behavior of their driver-facing interactive systems that caused their ratings to plummet. Other reviewers concur, as Consumer Reports yanked their “Recommended” rating from Ford’s new 2011 Edge model.The automotive industry calls in-car digital information systems “telematics” and these include navigation, telephone, Internet, climate control, and entertainment. Drivers use telematics to communicate and control almost everything in their cars these days other than the accelerator, brakes, and steering.
Ford’s troubles follow a familiar pattern of older, industrial companies struggling with digital age problems. The challenges of digital technology, particularly its human-facing aspects, can’t successfully be addressed with technical skills rooted in manufacturing. What's more, the organizational structures of the industrial era can become counterproductive when applied to the people who make digital systems.
Neither can those manufacturing companies dodge the problem. Digital solutions are so much cheaper and more flexible than mechanical ones that they will eventually come to dominate the entire company. Companies who can master the challenge of software’s unique nature, and particularly of how humans interact with it, will thrive. Ford is learning the opposite lesson.
In my 1998 book, The Inmates are Running the Asylum, I posed a riddle for the information age: “What do you get when you cross a car with a computer?” Common sense will tell you that you get a smart car but, as usual, common sense is wrong. You get a computer with a motor and wheels. The dominant behavior, the behavior that the user perceives, is no longer the behavior of an automobile. Now it is the behavior of a computer, and making computers behave in non-annoying, let alone enjoyable, ways is a unique and very difficult problem.
Automobile manufacturing companies like Ford need to acknowledge that they are no longer making automobiles with attached computer systems. In reality, they are making computer control systems with attached motion mechanisms. The digital computer is increasingly dominating the driver’s attention, even more so than the steering and brakes. If auto makers don’t give equivalent attention to the design and implementation of these digital systems, they will fail, regardless of the quality of the drive train, interior furnishings, and other manufactured systems.