Infotainment system flaws riled top Ford execs

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s MyFord Touch and SYNC infotainment system was so flawed when first introduced that it left Executive Chairman Bill Ford stuck by the side of the road in an unfamiliar area and appears to have caused current CEO Mark Fields to break his touchscreen in frustration.

Court documents from a 2013 class-action lawsuit filed in California show Ford engineers were worried about the “unsaleable” system from the outset of its 2010 launch, and described a subsequently flawed upgrade as a “polished turd.” A U.S. District Court judge last week certified classes of consumers from nine states in the lawsuit filed against the Dearborn automaker; a trial is expected in April 2017.

Ford’s current Sync 3 system is well-received, but Ford’s first attempt at an infotainment system was riddled with flaws. Consumer Reports blasted the technology for years, issuing scathing reports like “Why the MyFord Touch control system stinks,” and third-party agencies such as J.D. Power gave the Blue Oval pathetically low quality scores. The court documents, first reported by Forbes, detail some internal company strife during those early years.

The problems were many: screens would freeze or go blank; the system would generate error messages that couldn’t be cleared; it failed to pair with cellphones; the voice recognition and navigation wouldn’t work; and it was slow to respond to commands, documents show. Many Ford engineers saw the problems coming.

In an email exchange shortly before its release, one engineer, “suggested that a photo of Ford’s Oakville Assembly Plant should be used as a background photo on MyFord Touch; his colleague suggested it would be more appropriate if it was altered to Photoshop in above the doorway ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here.’ ”

“Those poor customers,” engineer Dominic Collella lamented in a company email.

Ford hired Microsoft in the spring of 2011 to help fix MyFord Touch, but subsequent upgrades released in 2012 didn’t help, either. After problems persisted, one engineer described an upgrade as a “polished turd,” while another said it was “like lipstick on a pig — I didn’t see any real performance improvement.”

The glitch-prone system confounded top executives.

Current CEO Mark Fields, who was president of the Americas at the time of the system’s release, started experiencing problems pairing his phone with the system in January of 2011. On more than one occasion, the entire touchscreen on his Edge would crash, with what he called the “dreaded black screen.”

The next year, he experienced similar problems with voice recognition failing to work, this time on a Taurus.

The continuing troubles may have led Fields to damage his screen.

Kenneth Williams, lead systems engineer for SYNC, received a photo of the broken screen inside Fields’ car from a mechanic in 2012. He forwarded it in a company email, writing Fields “may have been a little aggravated with the system.”

Even after multiple upgrades, Fields was still having trouble.

“I am once again having many problems with my Sync system,” he wrote in January 2013. “And yes, you guys already installed version 3.5!!!”

Three months later, Fields became even more frustrated after the issues still hadn’t been taken care of, writing: “Is this for real ... do our customers literally have to wait for a fix until July!!! I started experiencing this back in early January ... I don’t even use the system anymore.”

MyFord Touch also vexed the Ford family.

Edsel Ford started having trouble with vehicles in 2010, and his cousin Bill Ford also was having trouble on a daily basis.

“I am worried that this is causing some significant heartburn,” an unnamed employee wrote in 2011 regarding the issues Bill Ford was having.

At one point, the great-grandson of Henry Ford was forced to wait on the side of the road for five minutes as his system reset. He could not continue to drive because he was in an unfamiliar area and couldn’t use his in-car navigation.

Ford spokesman John Cangany said in a statement that Ford doesn’t comment on pending litigation.

Plaintiffs within the certified classes will now move forward with the completion of merits, expert discovery and summary judgment motion practice. A trial is scheduled for April 2017 in California, according to Steve Berman the plaintiff’s lead attorney and managing partner for the Seattle-based firm Hagens Berman.

“At best, what consumers paid for amounted to a pricy inconvenience, failing to live up to even the most basic of Ford’s gilded promises,” Berman said in a statement. “But in the worst scenarios, the failed MyFord Touch system’s defects can be a hazardous distraction to drivers.”

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Staff Writer Michael Wayland contributed.