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When I was invited by Ford to visit its headquarters in Dearborn, Mich, last week and check out its new in-car operating system, I thought I knew what to expect. 

It was going to be built on the Android Automotive operating system, so there would be native versions of Maps, Assistant, and other popular Google apps. It would look pretty slick, with graphics powered by Epic’s Unreal engine. And it would still support Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, because Ford has said it won’t restrict access to the popular phone-mirroring services like its rival General Motors. 

What else could there possibly be? A lot, apparently. Like a massive 48-inch curved display with crisp 4K graphics stretching the full length of the dash. This pillar-to-pillar panoramic display is the most eye-catching new feature to come to Ford’s vehicle lineup in a long time. 

What else could there possibly be? A lot, apparently.

And it puts the automaker on the vanguard of a controversial trend in the auto world that I call “screen maximalism,” in which companies like Tesla, Cadillac, Mercedes-Benz, and BMW are cramming larger and larger screens into their cars, despite warnings from safety experts that larger screens can distract drivers and make driving more dangerous.

But for Ford, the screen is just window dressing. The real innovation is the personalization and modularity offered by Google’s native Android OS, as well as 5G wireless connectivity for over-the-air software updates. The car will recognize the driver and adjust the settings accordingly. And the interior displays can be configured to as much — or as little — information as desired. In that way, the company hopes to better compete with Tesla and other tech-forward car rivals. 

“I think displays, in many ways, have been like windows into the inside of the car,” Doug Field, the former Apple and Tesla engineer who now runs Ford’s model e division, told me. “That was one of the things Steve [Jobs] taught us: the hardware should gradually become just a window into the world of software.”

The 48-inch display is actually two screens side-by-side.
Image: Ford

It’s been almost three years since Ford announced it would be swapping its Blackberry QNX-powered version of Sync with one that runs on Google’s Android. The move would allow vehicle owners to experience popular Google apps natively on their cars’ infotainment system without mirroring their phones. 

But it would also allow it to continue to offer an OS that was unique to Ford. Sync, the company’s factory-installed infotainment system, has been slowly adding functionality over the years and is now on its fourth generation. Still, the company promised that “millions” of Ford and Lincoln vehicles using the new operating system would hit the road by 2023. 

That turned out to be an overly optimistic prediction. The switch took longer than expected, with Ford CEO Jim Farley telling us back in 2022 that the integration was running “months” behind schedule. Now, Ford says the system is ready to go, with the 2024 Lincoln Nautilus being the first to feature the new OS and panoramic display. Other models, including the first Ford-branded vehicle, will be announced later. 

Ford says the system is ready to go, with the 2024 Lincoln Nautilus being the first to feature the new OS and panoramic display.

The new system won’t be branded as Sync, but Ford has no immediate plans to phase out its in-house operating system. But individual vehicle teams will have discretion about how much screen they want for their models. This suggests that the display layout in a Lincoln Nautilus won’t look the same as that in a Ford Bronco or an F-150 Lightning.  

“We’ve really approached infotainment as a platform, and there will be a number of screen configurations that are built into that platform,” Alan Hall, director of technology communications at Ford, told me.

Other Ford models may have different screen configurations.
Image: Ford

At first glance, the total acreage devoted to screens inside the Nautilus is a little overwhelming. Bringing up a map on the 11.1-inch central display and then casting that same map into the panoramic displays creates the odd effect of seeing two versions of the same map in two different places at the same time. Same for the music player. But Ford said everything will be customizable, with customers being able to choose how much or how little information they want to see inside their vehicle. 

Ford organizes the panoramic screen into three sections. Moving from left to right there’s the Critical section, which sits behind the steering wheel and serves as the instrument cluster; Supportive, in the central position; and Glanceable, which sits in front of the passenger seat. 

At first glance, the total acreage devoted to screens inside the Nautilus is a little overwhelming.

Critical information includes typical gauge cluster stuff, like speed, gear selection, and driver assist features. The Supportive section features navigation and directions. And the Glanceable section includes the music player, a clock, and a variety of other so-called “widgets” that can be swapped in and out, depending on the driver’s preferences. These include vehicle information, like graphics for tire pressure and fuel economy. The weather graphic includes little animations for clouds and rain. 

Importantly, the panoramic display is not a touchscreen — nor is it actually one contiguous screen. It appeared to be at least two different screens fused together under one piece of curved glass.

All functions are controllable through the 11.1-inch center touchscreen. The panoramic display is positioned directly below the windshield, which Ford says will only require a slight downward glance by the driver to minimize distractions from driving. 

Of course, minimizing distractions will be a challenge given how much real estate is being given over to screens. Research suggests that the shift toward touchscreen-based infotainment systems has accompanied a huge increase in driver distraction, with a AAA study concluding that drivers using touch screens were visually and mentally distracted for more than 40 seconds when completing tasks like programming navigation or sending a text message. Removing eyes from the road even for just two seconds doubles the risk for a crash. 

Field argues that Ford is following a set of internal guidelines about what it will show drivers on each screen in order to prevent distractions, such as how much animation to allow on the panoramic screen. Ultimately the goal is to keep drivers from looking at their phones by giving them enough information and functionality in the infotainment screen. 

“Ford is much more structured in how it thinks about safety than some of the newer companies that are really pushing the envelope on user interfaces,” Field said, “sometimes to the point where I have quite some arguments.”

You can actually expand CarPlay to fill the entire screen.
Image: Ford

Music player options include Spotify, Tidal, Apple Music, Google Play, and more.
Image: Ford

So much Android.
Image: Ford

Any Bluetooth enabled controller is compatible.
Image: Ford

Ford isn’t going as far as some of its rivals in embracing futuristic tech for its vehicles. The company made no mention of “generative AI,” “large-language models,” “augmented reality,” or “software defined vehicles” during its presentation — all of which were major themes to emerge from the 2024 CES consumer electronic show earlier this month.

But it wasn’t totally ignoring some of these trends. Ford said its next-gen Android-powered vehicles will offer a range of video streaming and gaming options. The product team demonstrated some of this during the event, including a racing game called Asphalt Nitro 2. Any Bluetooth-enabled video game controller can be linked to the car for easier play. Video streaming and gaming are features that will only be available when the vehicle is parked.

Web browsing will also be available while parked, initially through the Vivaldi browser and then later through Google Chrome. Video streaming apps like PBS Kids, YouTube, and Amazon Prime are also available for download through the Google Play store. And coming soon, Ford owners will be able to use a variety of video conferencing apps — only while parked, of course.

“Ford is much more structured and how it thinks about safety than some of the newer companies that are really pushing the envelope on user interfaces.”

Ford has said it has no plans to get rid of Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. GM caused a stir last year when it said it would ditch the beloved phone-mirroring services for its future lineup of electric vehicles, arguing it curate a better experience for its customers with its own operating system (which also runs on Android).

Not only is Ford not doing the same, it’s leaning into phone-mirroring by making it easier and giving it more prominence. While using CarPlay, customers can project either Apple Maps or Google Maps onto the 48-inch panoramic screen for additional visibility. And Ford’s EVs will be able to link with CarPlay or Android Auto to exchange information like battery life or range estimations for better route planning.

“We’ve actually got like the best CarPlay implementation in our vehicles of anybody in the industry,” Field said. “So why would you try and cut that off from somebody who loves their Apple ecosystem?”

There was nothing official to announce about Apple’s next-generation version of CarPlay that is supposed to take over all the screens in your car. But this looked pretty close to what was promised.

As cars continue on their present trajectory of becoming giant computers on wheels, automakers have struggled with one of the main drivers of the trend: software. Laggy systems, software bugs, and unresponsive screens have become ubiquitous in the automotive world. Connectivity turns everything into a subscription. The transition to the digital age has been rocky at best. 

Moreover, people are growing increasingly frustrated with the level of complexity needed to find basic controls. A recent JD Power survey found that overall satisfaction among car owners is down two points from a year ago and three points lower than in 2021. That’s the first time in the 28-year history of the study that the consumer research firm registered a consecutive year-over-year decline in owner satisfaction.

Automakers have struggled with one of the main drivers of the trend: software.

Ford’s product team cited this survey while presenting its new digital interface, arguing its new software will be easier and more user-friendly than other systems. But soon after, I was sitting in the driver’s seat of a Lincoln Nautilus watching a designer demonstrate how to direct climate control by tapping the touchscreen and moving the air current around with the tip of my finger. No physical knobs to adjust the vent, just the screen. 

Ford isn’t the only company routing more controls through its screens. Tesla was the first to replace physical controls for functions like climate control and windshield wiper speed with digital interfaces. Other automakers have followed, leading some safety experts to decry what they see as the rapid extinction of physical controls. 

Ford’s approach was to combine the teams responsible for physical and digital interfaces to reduce competition between designers, Field said. The company also analyzed anonymized data of how its customers interact with their screens, including how often they change settings to surface certain controls, to get a better sense of which controls they prefer to be physical versus digital. 

“I think the way you execute a screen has a lot to do with whether people become really angry that you pulled a button off,” he said. “So it is a hard balance, because the returns you get from moving stuff to the screen aren’t always quite as apparent.”

He added, “Some of it also is a leap of faith that you will be on a journey with the customer. And help them learn over time, that hey, this is actually really cool.”

#Fords #48inch #digital #dashboard #lot #Android #car

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