Reach Out and Touch


Are new cars too complicated to give to car rental customers? The question lept to my mind when I rented a car in San Francisco last week. Travelocity had a really good deal going on the Ford Edge, so I rented one for our trip through Travelocity, but from Avis. Of course, when I got to SFO, Avis didn’t have any Ford Edge’s, but Nancy at the rental counter came through for Avis with flying colors. She gave me a Ford Explorer. Not having the car you thought you reserved is an industry-wide problem, not one unique to Avis. The Explorer was, as you can see from the picture I snapped, black. It had a grey leather interior. It didn’t have every option Ford offers, but it had plenty. It had a proximity key. That’s a thing that looks like the power door lock key fob on your old car. The difference is when you get into the car with the proximity key in your pocket or purse, you just step on the brake and push the start button. I didn’t know that. I needed a guy from Avis to show me how to start the car.

It had MyFord Touch. That’s Ford’s touch-screen operating system. It’s complicated. When we started out, I couldn’t figure out how to turn on the radio. After driving from San Francisco to Sacramento with a side trip to Sausalito, I stopped to work it out. Don’t you dare work it out while you’re driving. That’s got to be even more dangerous than texting behind the wheel. I’ve read that the system crashes more than it should. It only crashed once for me. But it’s so distracting that you might crash if you’re not careful. Time was when you turned the radio on and adjusted the volume with a knob. You could change stations with a knob too, or push a button to scan for stations. Those functions are now on a touch screen and they’re not on the top level menu either. Same thing with the heat and A/C. All the controls are on the touch screen device and none of the settings I wanted are on the top level.

A lesser version of the entertainment system has a mini stereo plug so you can plug any kind of MP3 player into the radio and use the car’s speakers. The upgraded system this car had comes with USB inputs, RCA inputs (including video) and an SD card reader. But if you get that, you lose the mini stereo plug. The inputs are in a cubby hole at the junction of the dash and the console and the cubby has a door on it. The inputs are sufficiently inaccessible that you really shouldn’t try to use them while driving either. I didn’t ask Ford, but they may think that’s a safety feature. It’s not. Most people who rent cars are unfamiliar with the controls of the cars they rent and people will try to use those inputs while driving. It’s human nature. Plus, when you do stop to figure them out, that cubby isn’t illuminated, so a flashlight will come in handy. I have a little one in my camera bag. You can ask to borrow it if you want. I won’t lend you mine, but you can ask. You can’t even slip that SD card into the slot by feel, or get it out either, at least not easily.

While we stayed in Sacramento, I managed to get the radio presets to display four stations I like there. When in the Lake Tahoe area, I relied on an SD card for music. On the way back to San Francisco in the pre-dawn hours to catch an early flight, I wanted to listen to KCBS for traffic reports. I had, by that time, learned how to tune the radio directly to a station I hadn’t pre-set, but doing it while driving felt dangerous to me, so I had my wife do it. I lost count of how many times you had to touch the screen to get to that station. It was at least five and maybe as many as eight. For me to do it would have required stopping or having an accident.

I think the self-cancelling turn signals were computer-controlled too. Although they worked by the traditional lever rather than by the touch screen, in nine days I never did get the feel for the difference between signaling a turn and signaling a lane change. I was also unable to get the windshield washer to work. I’m not sure if that was because I couldn’t figure it out or because the car was out of fluid.

I believe Ford has had this system for three years now. I’m sure they’re working on making it more driver-friendly. It’s pretty logical. I was able to figure out most of what I needed to know without consulting the Explorer’s 586 page owner’s manual. But there are many functions I’d like to perform while driving that struck me as dangerous to do at 65 mph when you had to look and not work by feel.

I shudder to think how much more complicated the car would be if it had built in GPS. I brought my own and Ford isn’t the only company with computer problems. When I mounted my GPS, plugged it in and turned it on at SFO, the GPS thought it was still in the New York metropolitan area. Therefore, its directions to the Golden Gate Bridge were shall we say unnecessarily complicated.

I’ve just spent six paragraphs complaining about an electronic systems in a car so complicated that the car has a 586 page owner’s manual. And I really liked the car. It was quiet, roomy and comfortable. I loved the back-up camera. It has a warning system to tell you when you get too close to whatever you’re backing toward. Even though it’s pretty damned big, it carved the corners quite well in the winding road between Placerville and S Lake Tahoe. It wasn’t over-powered. Even though it was big, it averaged 21.6 mpg over roughly a thousand miles of driving. I left it at SFO thinking Avis had done me a favor giving me what must be a nicer car than the one I reserved. The difficulty I had with it was Ford’s fault, not Avis’. If I owned one, I’d probably love it in a week or two once I had the MyFord Touch set up to my liking, but trying to pick one up at an airport after lunch, hop in it and do 200 miles in it before dinner, that I didnt like so much.

I wasn’t about to sit in a garage and read a 586 page book before I started the car. In fact, I was on vacation, so I wasn’t about to read any 586 page book once I got off the coast-to-coast flight. While you could download the book to read on the plane, that isn’t really practical, because while you know what kind of car you hope you’ll get at the rental counter, I have never gotten what I asked for when I made a reservation.

Maybe what we need is a car designed only for the rental market. It could and should be simpler than what’s available to people who buy cars or lease them for an extended period of time. If you have followed my blog for any period of time, you know I want to call it an “Or Similar.”

Author: Tom

I know my ABC's, I can write my name and I can count to a hundred.