The Auto Connector: 5 Questions with Ford’s Michael Thomas

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Ford Sync 3 CES 2015

Ford will be all over the upcoming Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas—the world’s biggest showcase of cutting-edge technology. The F-150 truck is the official vehicle of CES 2015, while Ford Motor Co. president and CEO Mark Fields is making a keynote address on Jan. 6 about “what’s next for Ford and the company’s commitment to innovation in all parts of its business.”

Ford will debut Sync 3 at CES, its newly overhauled infotainment system, which is meant to make Ford and Lincoln customers forget about the user-unfriendliness of the previous systems, MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch. In an auto market where connectivity developments are among the most important new features of practically every vehicle, including the coming generation of driverless cars, this is a race in which Ford—once comfortably in the lead—can’t afford to fall behind.

Auto design has always been about the harmony between humans and machines, and even more so today, where connected cars are a must for consumers. That’s where Michael Thomas comes in. As a human-machine interface (HMI) researcher for Ford, he analyzes the implications of this key relationship for infotainment systems and the entire automotive experience. 

brandchannel chatted with Thomas in the lead-up to CES about how in-car connectivity is evolving in the U.S. and beyond.[more]

Ford Sync 3 CES 2015

brandchannel: How do you approach your job at a time when human-machine interface clearly is getting even more important in your industry, particularly as digitization takes over?

Michael Thomas: We take a holistic attitude. The conventional understanding of [this discipline] is that it’s digital interactions, but we’re quickly moving beyond that to the overall positive interaction between the human and the machine—social interaction, not just as an operating tool. There’s definitely an evolution involved.

For example, Sync and MyFord Touch were designed with the intent of being a technological breakthrough, but since then the approach has evolved to take into account more social and cultural information.

bc: How and why is this evolving?

Thomas: Because we’re growing toward making our products more understandable and to do that really entails knowing who your customers are across the globe. For example, you may find that people who live in the same region, one who’s an urban commuter and the other who’s just an occasional driver, have less in common than two urban commuters who live in radically different regions.

In Germany, for instance, it’s all about getting from point A to point B, and it’s all about the machine. Yet when you dig further, there’s a passion for the kinesthetic experience of driving and what the machine is supposed to do that sometimes is a little more subtle than we tend to see.

bc: Why do you think that is?

Thomas: Well, you find a lot of people in Germany who aren’t even necessarily related to automotive but who are proud of Germany’s automotive tradition and are proud of the quality. Not that everything is functional, but it’s functional in a specific way—the rush of acceleration, the precision—that carries its way through the design of German cars, the way that precision is interpreted and the way interfaces are interpreted.

Or in China, there’s definitely the idea that the back-seat person is the most important person in the car, but this is changing a lot as China changes. For a long time, people who had access to cars were being driven around because they had access to drivers. You still see that, maybe for different reasons. But in China now, especially for new car buyers, it’s emblematic of being able to be a responsible participant in your family. So when a young couple gets married, the parents of the wife may buy a car for the family, and the husband has de facto ownership of the car even though the wife’s parents may not have a car of their own.

It’s a chance for the new young family to show they’ve made it, and there’s the reciprocity of the new young family to accommodate the parents, taking them on trips and other places. So now it’s not necessarily the owner of the car who is sitting in back and has the personal driver, but the in-laws.

Also in China you see that with the development of wealth in large urban areas, the driving experience itself has become more important. And in those areas, one important thing is winning the road. When you get into traffic in Shanghai, for instance, you don’t have the formal, linear queueing up that you do in Germany and the United States because [in Shanghai] there aren’t any lane markings, or at least they’re not used. Drivers are just weaving in and out. But if you’re too cautious, you lose your “claim” to the road. So [Chinese consumers] won’t trust a vehicle feature that supplants driver awareness; but if it facilitates that awareness, it will be a big win.

bc: How did Ford bring to bear insights about human-machine interface in redesigning Sync?

Thomas: There was a pretty concentrated and focused effort on maknig it simpler overall—on not trying to have it do too much. The main focus was to appreciate the complexity of all the tasks people are donig in the car and what they’re trying to get out of it. We needed to offer a system that was a lot easier to use and more intiuitive.

bc: Are there cultural differences in what constitutes that?

Thomas: There are some things that are cross-cultural. One of the universals is the importance of confidence and being able to actualize whatever values you do have in the car, and that comes from effortless interaction with the vehicle. When your vehicle is intelligible to you and follows natural categories—not necessarily engineering-type categories of groupings, but how everyday people use it—they have more confidence.

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