Ford is about to change what drivers will see when they get behind the wheel of some of its vehicles.
The new electronic system and instrument panel – in one vehicle that will extend the width of the windshield – aims to reinvent how drivers get information. It will include a speedometer and other important gauges, navigation, apps like Spotify, video streaming and auto racing games.
There will also be a traditional touchscreen. It's mounted lower in the dashboard, between the front seats.
Ford engineers developed the new electronic system and instrument panel. It debuted early this year in the 2024 Lincoln Nautilus luxury SUV.
Among other priorities to gain customer acceptance, the new displays will play well with Apple CarPlay, in contrast to the direction GM has chosen for its upcoming electric vehicles.
The system will be called Ford or Lincoln Digital Experience, depending on the brand of car it is in.
“The new digital experience represents a huge step forward in Ford's ongoing software developments and promises significant improvements to existing SYNC systems,” said AutoPacific analyst Paul Watty. “It's much faster, intuitive, more customizable, and delivers the most important information to drivers in their field of vision in an easy-to-understand way.”
Here are some of the most prominent features of the new system:
The dashboard, yes, but so do the TV screens
The 2024 Nautilus will have a 48-inch screen that extends across the entire width of the windshield. It will be at the base of the windshield, away from the driver and several inches lower than traditional speedometers and other instruments. This is intended to make it easier for the driver to shift focus from the road ahead to the screen with a single glance. The screen will have a 4K resolution, to be compatible with high-end TV screens.
The screen size on the Nautilus is 4.3 inches from top to bottom. That may seem small, but when the screen was shown in a recent demo, it appeared large enough to make speed, navigation and other information easily visible to the driver.
Other vehicles will have screens of different sizes. Only Lincoln will offer the full view or the panoramic view, at least initially.
Three types of information
From left to right across the vehicle, Ford divides the display into three types of information: critical, supportive, and glanceable.
The most important information – speed, for example – is located directly in front of the driver. Slightly less immediate features, such as the navigation screen map, are on the right, but still on the driver's side of the car. On the passenger side there are three windows to display information such as weather, trip computer and entertainment. Drivers can customize what appears in those windows, and the long list of apps available on the touchscreen.
Programmable from the steering wheel
Each side of the steering wheel has a four-way rocker switch with four dimples to activate different functions. The keys are programmable for any function the driver wants and are immediately available. Volume, Adjust, and Mode will likely be the best option.
Once the driver touches a key, an icon showing its features appears on the screen in front of the driver.
The car will remember each driver's preferences regarding displays, temperature, seat and mirror settings, sound, other apps and more. He will also have access to the driver's Google profiles. iPhone owners will be able to access their apps, contacts and music through CarPlay. And since Ford is using Google's system, Android owners will also get all the features they're accustomed to.
The system will receive over-the-air software updates and will have access to the Google Apps library.
The system can also stream video or video games – including Ford's exclusive version of “Asphalt Nitro 2” – when the car is parked.
The system is compatible with Bluetooth devices, including keyboards for web browsing.
“Being able to log into Google and have all your information available is a huge convenience,” Watty said.
Spoken commands for almost everything
Ford wants drivers to use spoken commands for almost everything. Google Voice Assistant built-in. It is intended to control the climate and other car functions, in addition to setting navigation destinations and playing audio. The driver can choose to use Amazon's Alexa or Apple's Siri as well.
The touchscreen will have icons for adjusting temperature, fan, track/adjust, etc., but Ford is trying hard to convince drivers to use spoken commands instead.
Designed to work with Apple CarPlay
While GM is using its new Google-based infotainment system to sidestep Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, Ford research shows that half of its customers regularly use smartphone interfaces and expect them in a new car. That's why the system works for both Ford and Lincoln, as well as adding features the automaker said it thinks customers will appreciate.
Different sizes and features of panels for different models
Not every vehicle will get a full head-up display. It's expensive, which is why Ford is offering it in the new Lincoln SUV. The new Ford Explorer coming later this year will use the new electronic architecture, but with a display and features more suited to that brand and price range. We expect to see variations of the system on every brand new vehicle the brands introduce, but it won't necessarily be available on vehicles with smaller updates coming.
A 48-inch panoramic screen is standard on the 2024 Lincoln Nautilus.
Will the panoramic screen change the game?
It will be months before we know if Ford has actually figured out a better way to manage common features and tasks. I'll be testing the 2024 Nautilus when the car is introduced in March, but it will take more than a day to see if new features like these actually constitute an improvement. It takes time to take advantage of the customization offered, and even more time to figure out whether complaints are about how the system works, or just a natural learning curve, like the first few days with a new smartphone or TV.
I expect to know when I'll be driving the Nautilus for a week or so, though I expect my first couple of days, and the days of many owners, will involve some frustration.
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