Modern Auto Entertainment System Problems

My wife just got a new, modern car with a fancy Ford Sync 3 entertainment system, and I’m a little jealous of that. This is the first car we’ve had with Bluetooth and built-in navigation and the ability to play MP3s and such. But these systems are far from perfect. Every review of pretty much every car other than the Teslas complains about the entertainment systems and how fiddly and unintuitive they are. Somehow Tesla gets it right, while the traditional car companies are terrible at this sort of thing. Or perhaps the reviewers are so impressed by being pushed back in their seat by the Tesla’s massive acceleration and the giant iPad-looking screen is so pretty that they can’t think straight. Or they’re afraid Elon Musk will cancel their Tesla order if they say anything bad.

In any case, I don’t find the Ford Sync 3 to be hard to use, but it is much farther from being good than it should be to fit in the center of the dashboard of an automobile. This version ditches the Microsoft influence for a version built on the QNX real-time operating system bought by RIM a couple years back. QNX is a good choice to build a real-time interactive entertainment system on, but the Sync software on top of it needs a lot of help.

The very first day we got the car, I went out to learn about the Sync system and the damn thing locked up within seconds of me touching it. I had force it to reset, which wasn’t too hard, but messes things up (more below). This happened again this weekend as we were driving. I was in the passenger seat and wondering why it couldn’t find the iPod I stored a bunch of music on (more on that later too), and the touch screen locked up. Once I reset it, it behaved, but having to reset it twice in just over a week tells me it isn’t very reliable, and it needs to be. Anything that could distract or stress a driver should be eliminated as the highest priority, and having your entertainment/navigation system lose its mind is a good way to distract and stress a driver.

Speaking of navigation systems, this Sync 3 system has a proprietary nav system that is reasonably friendly and competent, but not nearly as nice as the old Garmin Nuvi my wife was using. The Sync nav system is quite out of date (Nordstrom has not been in the South Bay Galleria for quite a while now), and Ford says we can purchase map updates from the dealer. Well, it is a new car, so the map should be updated, but isn’t. And my wife’s old Garmin had lifetime map updates included. The biggest thing my wife misses about her Garmin though is the current speed display on the GPS screen. This independent speed display is quite handy if your speedometer is hard to read or not very precise, or you just don’t want to look down often. I can see why Ford wouldn’t want this, because it might show a slight difference between GPS speed and the speedometer, and they wouldn’t want anyone to think their car is reading the wrong speed. But I’ll trust GPS speed any day, and it is a shame it isn’t an option.

Now the biggest problem with resetting the system is that it loses the correct time. That’s right, it forgets the correct time! And if you ask it to set according to the GPS time, it can’t handle Daylight Savings time. Seriously. This should not be a problem in a fancy expensive computerized entertainment/nav system. The Garmin unit that I have and the one my wife had handle Daylight Savings time just fine, so the fact that a modern system can’t is just sloppy/lazy programming.

Another problem is that it keeps locking up the iPod I put a bunch of song on. It seems to me that iPods should be a pretty well known device to be able to handle well, and maybe the problem is on the iPod side, but it shouldn’t lock it up. When that happens, the iPod can’t be found in the source list and has to be re-scanned after I reset the iPod. Yet more distractions that shouldn’t ever happen.

The system has voice commands that are mostly OK, but it is so tedious to use, we just use Siri from our iPhones to make calls and read texts and such. The built-in stuff isn’t nearly as good. Luckily, holding the voice command handle for a couple seconds activates Siri through the built-in sound system.

All this leads to the problem: the car makers want to own this stuff and charge too much for it, so they make their own software and interfaces, and none of it is as good as what Apple and Google make. While CarPlay and AndroidAuto are available in some cars, they are not common yet, and they will still require some interaction with the lousy built-in systems to work. It could be that Tesla has all of this solved, but Ford sure doesn’t.

Comments are closed.