Ford gives up on turning its cars into smartphones

How do I activate the ejector seat?
How do I activate the ejector seat?
Image: Ford
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Ford saw a future in which every surface is a touchscreen. But its customers didn’t share in that vision. So the American carmaker is reversing course and adding back knobs and other traditional controls to its dashboard panels.

MyFord Touch, first introduced in 2010, put most of the controls for climate, entertainment, and navigation within a large touchscreen interface. The system also responds to voice commands. Ford said it would “help consumers fall in love with their vehicles again,” but consumers mostly just hated it. “Simple tasks have been made time-consuming and distracting,” concluded Consumer Reports in a typical review. Recent updates to the system were similarly panned.

There’s a line of thought that, as sensors and LCDs become cheaper and more plentiful, more and more surfaces will become interactive screens. Microsoft, which helped develop the MyFord Touch system, is a big proponent of this idea. And, of course, the notion has only been encouraged by the wild success of smartphones and tablets for which the interface is essentially just a touchscreen.

But it seems people have no patience for touchscreens when a simple knob will do. Raj Nair, head of global product development, tells the Wall Street Journal (paywall) that knobs and buttons will return to the dashboards of new Fords for functions like tuning the radio and changing the volume. The company said it would follow the model of its F-150 pickup truck, which currently sports a mix of touchscreen and more traditional controls on its dashboard panel.

Car dashboards are notoriously difficult to design, and the challenge has grown ever more complex as cars—moving computers, really—add new features. A key question has been whether people want their cars to duplicate features they are now used to seeing on their phones, like interactive maps and music players, or whether the cars should simply connect to the phones for that.

In the latter camp is Apple, which said last week that the new version of its operating system for iPhones would integrate seamlessly with the dashboards of some car manufacturers, including Ford rival General Motors. That could even include features that carmakers are accustomed to charging extra for, like navigation and concierge services.

Ford now seems to be moving in that direction, too. It wanted to make its cars more like smartphones, but it turns out that people already have smartphones. They want their cars to be like cars.