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Software Transportation Upgrades Technology

How Ford Will Upgrade Owners' Display Screens 215

Posted by timothy
from the changing-focus dept.
gManZboy writes "'Sometime early next year, Ford will mail USB sticks to about 250,000 owners of vehicles with its advanced touchscreen control panel. The stick will contain a major upgrade to the software for that screen. With it, Ford breaks the model in which the technology in a car essentially stayed unchanged from assembly line to junk yard' — and Ford becomes a software company. This shift created a hot new tech job at Ford: human-machine interface engineers — people who come from a range of backgrounds, from software development to mechanical engineers, and who can live in the worlds of art and science at once."
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How Ford Will Upgrade Owners' Display Screens

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  • Opening (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Ice Station Zebra (18124) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @09:36AM (#38108036) Homepage Journal

    Sounds like an opening for a black hat to compromise a Ford vehicle with some mal-ware.

  • by rrossman2 (844318) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @09:41AM (#38108044)

    Seriously... the article writer and story submitter haven't been involved with or paying attention to autos for the past.. oh.. 10+ years?

    Most "recalls" anymore are for flashing the software or programming in the ECU, TCM, BCM, or whatever other module. There's a recent 2007-2010 model year Honda recall for transmissions shifting issues that the fix is flashing new programming into the computer. How is that not software?

    Heck, GM radios (yes, made by delco or whoever) come with certain features locked out.. to unlock say the input port to work with XM requires plugging it into the shop computer and basically "flipping some bits" in the radio firmware (for lack of better terms) to enable the feature.

    There are older recalls that are just software updates.. and these updates are as much software and done by the car manufacturer as the Ford update (IE: Ford doesn't make the radios, other companies do.. some companies that make OEM radios include: Fujitsu Ten (Eclipse), Panasonic, Delco, Alpine, Pioneer, Becker, Kenwood, JVC... most of that short list I typed out also still make or made after market radios at some point.

  • Re:what a summary! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 19, 2011 @09:46AM (#38108068)

    Workplaces like that are very common today. They're basically two or three American mechanical engineers, coupled with two or three American software developers. They usually have one good manager a level above them, but then another 15 or so useless managers above that. Then there are the 85 off-shore software developers who collectively are less productive than the two or three American software developers. Aside from getting their own assigned work completed, the American software developers also have to do or fix the work assigned to the off-shore developers. But since this whole off-shoring idea was originated by one of the 15 useless middle managers, it's untouchable and can't just be discarded, although it's a complete waste. Then there's a 'user interface designer' that the software developers have to fight with daily. This poor fellow dropped out of art school and somehow became an expert in UIs. He wants to spend all day adding curved corners and gradients to every part of the UI. Then he decides to drop menu bars, status bars, and other useful UI functionality like that, because it's not 'usable'. The software developers battle with him constantly over his stupid ideas, but this designer is the son of the brother of one of the middle managers, so he stays around although he's a complete waste.

  • by argStyopa (232550) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @09:51AM (#38108094) Journal

    I'm pleased that they're paying attention to this; unfortunately I bought a 2011 edge without the fancy screen, so I'm in the-hell-of-1974-bad-stereo-control, to the power of many-more-features-shoehorned-in.

    I *am* curious why that touchscreen - which is approximately the size of 2 smartphones - was a $1611 upgrade from the basic controls.

    Right now I (apparently) have the software and most of the systems in my car, but imagine trying to run an mp3 player, navigation system, bluetooth phone, etc with THIS (http://image.motortrend.com/f/2008_ford_edge/2308898196140957893+ppromo_mt_large/center_console.jpg) set of controls?

    I seriously can't wait until all cars have at least a USB port so I can save/store/communicate things like radio stations, seat preferences, etc all just by uploading my own user config. It'd be even nicer to get diagnostic data from the car that way that's a little more comprehensive than "oh, the red light is on".

  • Psych majors, too (Score:4, Interesting)

    by paiute (550198) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:01AM (#38108136)
    There is a whole field in industrial psychology which studies the interaction between human and machine in terms of information flow and decision making. These guys and gals work for the CIA, NSA, FAA, NASA, DOD, etc.
  • UI issues (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Alomex (148003) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:05AM (#38108162) Homepage

    The upgrade is to fix UI issues. How bad is the UI? I rented a Ford Focus a month ago and could not figure out how to switch the radio station to a non-programmed location!!

    The screen gave you no indication and none of the likely combinations worked, and I'm a techie who loves gadgets, CLI, etc.

    I can only wonder what would the average customer experience be like.

  • Re:what a summary! (Score:3, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:31AM (#38108258)

    So the net result is you practically write p-code, which they then thinly translate into Java or PHP or whatever.

    If you do it a certain way it's not so bad. The good but expensive programmer writes the stuff in precise English. It then gets compiled by some Indians into Java/.Net.

    Then the good expensive programmer goes off to write something else while a cheaper bunch of people maintains the crap :).

    If you really want to offshore work and not just "compilation", I think you should skip the "cheap" Indians, the Eastern Europeans are much better, they charge more but at least they're better than AIs- you still need to be a bit careful, but the hit rate is better.

  • by mrquagmire (2326560) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:41AM (#38108308)
    The summary is a little misleading. This is not a "major upgrade," it is a complete rewrite of the MyFord Touch system. You see, for their first attempt, Ford decided to outsource the project to a company called BSQUARE who put the UI together using Adobe Flash Lite [tumblr.com]. For some reason, the results were slightly [consumerreports.org] less [autoblog.com] than [nytimes.com] stellar [fordedgeforum.com].

    Anyway, Microsoft itself is supposedly helping with the rewrite and Ford is doing the rest in-house (without Flash) so those of us who have been dealing with this awful system for the last year are at least a little hopeful.
  • by swalve (1980968) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:49AM (#38108342)
    I just bought a new car, and it does have more diag data than just a red light. Now, it's "if red light A is lit steadily, and amber light B flashes six times, the airbag is bad. If it flashes 5 times, you are out of gas." Etc. It is confusing.
  • by Sollord (888521) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @10:56AM (#38108374)

    It's even more amusing/worse as this update is a rewrite of a rewrite since MyFord was a total rewrite of the original ford sync system which ford originally developed in house with MS. Talk about going full circle

  • Re:what a summary! (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Anonymous Coward on Saturday November 19, 2011 @12:11PM (#38108800)

    people who come from a range of backgrounds, from software development to mechanical engineers, and who can live in the worlds of art and science at once

    Then there's a 'user interface designer' that the software developers have to fight with daily. This poor fellow dropped out of art school and somehow became an expert in UIs. He wants to spend all day adding curved corners and gradients to every part of the UI. Then he decides to drop menu bars, status bars, and other useful UI functionality like that, because it's not 'usable'. The software developers battle with him constantly over his stupid ideas, but this designer is the son of the brother of one of the middle managers, so he stays around although he's a complete waste.

    I just thought I'd chime in here. Ford has contracted out at least one UI deign project for their new cars to several parallel design firms, including one I work with (sorry NDA prohibits more info). The design is a long term project made up of: one manager below the level of company founder; one graphic designer; and a bunch of usability researchers from disparate backgrounds including: UI design, anthropology, CS, music, and education. They spend most of their time putting together fast and dirty mockups of interfaces and then watching as many people as possible (in the target demographic) try to use them and interviewing those people about the experience.

    It is too early to judge the quality of the end product and even if it is excellent who knows if Ford will go forward with it. That said, I thought it important that people know your vision of how UIs are designed does not reflect the reality of my current experience with their "in process" design work.

  • by jtara (133429) on Saturday November 19, 2011 @02:35PM (#38109762)

    PERHAPS the fact that the customer is updating the firmware themselves is something new. But as others have pointed-out, car manufacturers have been updating firmware in engine and other onboard computers for years.

    Human-Machine Interface Engineer? Not new either. Let me tell you how I turned some line workers into Human-Machine Interface Engineers 30 years ago...

    I was working for a small company in Michigan that made measurement and control systems used on automotive assembly lines. We were working on a system for a Bendix axle plant. It read a Brinell (hardness) gauge, and controlled the movement of the part through the station, application of the gauge, good/bad paint spray, etc.

    The company was perpetually behind, they had one and a half software people (I was the one - the other was a hardware guy that dabbled), and they didn't want to bother me about this job until I'd finished the prior one. So, I finish up this job and they tell me they've got this new job for me to do, and they're sending me to Ohio the next day on the primary contractor's private plane.

    They had the hardware put together. They told the client they were sending two guys to wire-in the system. No software had been written or designed. I didn't even know what it was supposed to do. They briefed me...

    We arrive at the plant and the guy we meet starts screaming at us. We were two days late. We didn't KNOW that we were two days late, but we were apparently two days late.

    While my co-worker started wiring-in the the box, I set up my Altair (yes, really) on the plant floor next to the line. So, for two weeks, I sat there with this deafening noise designing and writing code. The line was down, of course, and the two workers responsible for it had to stand around twiddling their thumbs.

    You haven't felt pressure till you've shown-up at an axle plant two days late to write software on the plant floor from scratch, with the line down, and two monkeys hovering around twiddling their thumbs.

    The line workers might have had some light maintenance tasks, but otherwise they didn't have anything to do, so they helped out. Sometimes we need them to operate the equipment, etc.

    We had a panel with a small LCD display (a few characters) and a bunch of big, industrial buttons in neat rows and columns. And no design. At all. (OK, I mean, we knew what we needed to do with the gauges and solenoids. We knew the operating sequence of the line. But there was no per-determined UI design.)

    So in a leap of faith I ask the guys: "how do you want this to work?" Why not? These were they guys that have to work the machine every day. Who better to do the UI design?

    They were delighted. I made the buttons work the way the line workers thought the buttons should work. I made the display show messages that were meaningful to them. It really helped to smooth-over the situation of us arriving late with nothing but a gutless box that did nothing to wire-in...

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