There's no question cars do more today than just take us places. They've also become a source of interactive entertainment and I'm not just talking about the radio and CD/MP3 player. No, many modern cars have literally become interactive electronic software devices that, while they may sound good on paper (and in dealership brochures), can actually detract from the whole driving experience.
For example, BMW and Ford have both invested many millions of dollars into their infotainment systems plus millions more in marketing them as user-friendly. Technically advanced they may be, but BMW's iDrive and the MyFord Touch systems have each been known to make things, well, difficult. Ever since BMW launched iDrive nearly a decade ago, it's had a love-hate relationship with owners. The first version of the system could be summed up as an overly complicated smorgasbord simplified into a single round knob located on the center console. The latest version isn't all that different.
To their credit, BMW has consistently worked to perfect the system to make it more user-friendly. Evidently, that hasn't been good enough as many BMW owners still long for the days when iDrive was still a figment of some German engineer's imagination. MyFord Touch was designed to be a state-of-the-art touch screen-based infotainment system that allows drivers and passengers to conveniently manage everything from emergency assistance, traffic directions, to music options. Sounds great, but there have been problems.
Along with Ford's hands-free calling system, Sync, there has recently been several quality control issues. Watchdog groups Consumer Reports and J.D. Power and Associates have reported touchscreen blackouts, random reboots, and problems responding to voice commands. Because of this, the Ford Edge has been taken off Consumer Report's 2011 "Recommended" list. Last year, Ford was ranked highest among all non-luxury brands in initial quality by J.D. Power and Associates, but this may not be the case for 2011.
Ford has just announced that they've improved both systems, but what I'm calling into question is the need to have such complex infotainment systems in general. Speaking of which, GPS is not always the end-all answer to finding one's way. Here's a good example: A law professor family friend was using his GPS to guide his way through traffic. It then instructed him to wrongly go down a one-way street even though he could clearly see the ONE WAY street sign from the window.
He ignored years of driving knowledge and common sense (despite the law degree), and opted instead to obey the GPS. He's alive today, but the shame will never go away. The point is that as useful as they can to be, infotainment and GPS systems have their drawbacks. When they work, they work great. But when they don't, who knows where or how you'll end up. Technologies such as these are fascinating and can help make life easier when traveling long distances and in everyday driving.
Without question it's fun to use a touchscreen and to give your car instructions via voice commands, however, more often than not there's been less fun and more frustration. BMW and Ford have simple, yet direct marketing slogans: "The Ultimate Driving Machine" and "Drive One", respectively. Sadly, their infotainment systems partially discredit both. Automakers are still ironing out the bugs, but even so, these systems could remain interferences to the joy of driving whether through repeated trips to the dealership or the idea that we can be reached anytime, anywhere.
As cool as infotainment systems can be, we need to remember that cars are meant for driving, whether for fun or basic mobility. Adding additional software that's been known to break can quickly ruin both.