Some of the top tech spec available on the mass market shows that it’s still some way from auto robust. Paul Myles reports.

Technology in cars is not unlike technology anywhere – when it works it’s great, when it doesn’t it’s less than useless. Perhaps the only difference in the automotive world is that we have become so used to a very high level of robust performance from auto technology that we make bigger demands on it than any technology used in our mobile devices, tablets or desktop computers.

Of course, even auto tech can go wrong as I am well aware after an ECU governing the ABS system failed on a VW Touareg I was testing on a trip through Switzerland. Driving at more than 80mph in a rain drenched tunnel, the offside front and rear wheels locked solid throwing the car into a sideways slide that I only just corrected with reverse lock and full throttle before the car would have slammed into the tunnel’s sidewall. Only then did the emergency systems kicked in freeing the wheels and reducing the car’s speed to 30mph.

Mercifully, nothing as exciting as that incident happened while testing the new Ford Edge Vignale 2.0-litre TDCI on this year’s drive to Switzerland for the 2018 Geneva Motor Show. Instead, the 700-mile drive from London was as relaxing and stress-free and any long distance one-day drive I’ve ever enjoyed. A superbly comfortable ride is enhanced still further by the Vignale’s luxuriously appointed cabin, lined in quality leather and soft-touch plastics.

Of course, the user experience would not be complete without a truly easy-use infotainment suite boasting the latest SYNC3 technology that gets better and more comprehensive through every generation. Connectivity is both simple to achieve and faultlessly reliable even when hooking up to surely one of the last people using a BlackBerry!

However, we are not yet at the level that provides a perfect experience and the fact we aren’t must raise issues of just how robust the technology has to become above today’s offerings if we are to see Level 5 autonomy on a mass market product. Let me explain. Like many motorists, I chose to run two sat-navs at the same time to be sure I had the very latest traffic updates and could assess the value of the car’s on-board system. What became clear very quickly was that Google Maps on my phone was choosing a route considerably quicker than the Ford’s system which also was patently out-of-date being unable to acknowledge a new road system in Lewisham, southeast London, that had be constructed about a year ago.

On a stop, I managed to work through the car’s route options and discovered while the system was set to take the fastest route, it also had an ecological setting which could toggle through Low, Medium or High but could not be turned off completely. In essence, this meant that the car would always choose a route with a better mpg rather than the shorter/faster route that Google Maps suggested. It’s possible this was limited in its choices in a bid to improve the average 31mpg I was recording from the 210PS engine despite a gentle right boot on the throttle.

An expert’s view

As it happened I was able to challenge Ford of Europe’s Christof Kellerwessel, chief engineer electronic and electrical systems engineering, on this very issue at the motor show. He made it clear that Ford’s future strategy involves opening up the car’s dashboard up to third-party suppliers.

He explained: “Waze will be available on those screens in the car as of March which is a strategy we are very serious about. We do realise we have a large customer base that is used to handheld devices and they want to bring their apps into the car using AppLink. SmartDeviceLink is the protocol invented by Ford as an open source so it is used by other carmakers and so now we can bring Waze into the dashboard in a way that is seamlessly integrated with the car’s systems.

“This will use all the features that people have come to appreciate and one of these is interactive and dialogue oriented feedback systems such as if you have a difficult traffic situation you can very easily use Waze to warn other motorists.”

Kellerwessel said this is just the beginning of how Ford sees its connectivity offering going forward in a world where the car enjoys a major role in the IoT. He added: “That’s an example but the strategy behind it is that working with app providers realising that what we offered must be constantly evolving and some of the apps develop faster than we can do. However, we are now offering updates of SYNCin a consumer friendly way so that it always up-to-date.”

Kellerwessel said the problem between the speed at which auto technology reacts to updates and that of consumer electronics must be addressed if the car-buying public is to have faith in on-board systems. He expanded: “The issue is the development speed between auto electronics and consumer electronics is different – auto electronics, for all the good reasons of robustness, do have a longer development time. Also, the task of an app is very limited whereas the task of an infotainment system can be enormous. We do understand that some of the routing options, especially if you have a certain preference, may be different to what you have seen from online devices.”

He said that voice activation has a role to play in future HMI solutions but that there is still a lot of development required to achieve robust performance. Kellerwessel said: “I would say the smartest voice control today still needs to ‘learn’ and needs to adapt. Many of us remember the early mobile phones like Nokia with and up-down-left-right button and we all thought that is the HMI that works only to learn that there could be a different HMI, ie touchscreens.

“So the stereo-type of operations that would be seen as simple is constantly evolving so I would say the touchscreen seems to be the device that everybody’s homing into because it is intuitive and simple. Voice control will have to evolve and we believe is a very important way of operating the vehicle overall and there is no standstill in its development. I think we need to work on a far objective is deep learning for voice control to understand the differences. One example is with Smart Device Link, we are implementing Alexa into the car as an extension to SYNC.”

ADAS

Apart from the fact that this Ford Edge Vignale provided a superior driving experience, both to and from Geneva including an hour making full use of its 4x4 capability enhanced by Pirelli Verde all-weather tyres driving over the Jura Mountains in roads covered in fresh snow, there was also something of an issue with its adaptive cruise control sensors. The car is not alone here, in that several systems I have driven are less than human-level intuitive in spotting traffic movement ahead.

With the Ford, differing weather conditions produced different levels of sensitivity in that sometimes the car would slow down too soon believing a bend in the highway placed a truck in its path and, at other times, would miss a truck completely until the very last minute resulting in a robot’s version of slamming on the brakes. Naturally, an alert driver can modify his/her driving accordingly by engaging in a slow weave on approaching traffic ahead so that the sensors get the best chance of ‘spotting’ traffic. Not an ideal solution if you have a police car on your tail itching for a pull-over!

And just one last gripe, is a design issue with the windscreen aerodynamics that allow so much rain over-spill at its side extremities on to the door window panes that the wing mirrors are often obscured so much by rain as to be rendered useless.

So, while the Ford Edge Vignale has every right to be viewed as a serious premium vehicle worth its starting price tag of £39,865, it shows that the industry’s technology certainly has a long way to go before achieving the levels of autonomy necessary to deliver a full driverless experience.

Connected & Autonomous Vehicles

14 May 2018 - 17 May 2018, Santa Clara, USA

From vehicle electrification and infrastructure to the evolution of ADAS and vehicle automation to enhanced connectivity and new mobility models, no rock will be left unturned.