Cars have become expensive rolling gadgets, full of screens, speakers, and sensors — but are they actually good gadgets? In our new series, ScreenDrive, we’ll review cars just like any other device, starting with the basics of what they’re like to use.
Directions to the nearest 7-Eleven.”
It was 30 degrees and snowing outside. I should’ve just hurried home to bury under the covers, but my car can tell me the fastest way to redeem my free Slurpee coupon, so of course I’m going to take advantage of that opportunity.
We live in a world full of voice-activated technology, and no place makes more sense to integrate this technology than in the car. It’s the one place where keeping your hands and eyes on the road is not ideal, but crucial, and the 2017 Ford Fusion Energi is one of the first cars on the market that affords you access to Amazon Alexa, in addition to Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. This essentially turns the Fusion Energi into a rideable smartphone, which you can talk to for directions, add items to your shopping list, remotely adjust your home temperature, play a podcast, or ask general search questions — whatever comes to mind during the drive.
Like most new vehicles on the road, the Fusion Energi comes with two screens: the infotainment screen at the center of the car, and the digital cockpit ahead of the steering wheel. The center, 8-inch LCD touchscreen display features a row of six touchscreen buttons at the bottom. The graphics are pretty basic — stare hard enough and you can probably start to see some individual pixels — and the touchscreen’s responsiveness is about a half a second slower than what you may be used to on an iPad or smartphone. Occasionally when you swap between menu pages, there is a brief period where a black screen flashes as the next page loads.
Compared to a slightly earlier generation on my personal vehicle, the 2016 Ford Escape, the latest SYNC software looks visually identical — with similar chunky buttons that have yet to adapt to the flat design aesthetic that’s common in today’s smartphone apps. While the bland background color and generic pictographs aren’t exactly pretty to look at (perhaps I’m spoiled by the quick loading time, colorful iconography, and fast swipes with stock Android on the Google Pixel), I can see Ford’s intentions in its in-car informational hierarchy. Each button features a thick icon and bold text that helps you view everything at a glance.
Features that you’ll likely use when parked, like searching for nearby charging stations or checking remaining battery power, are a bit more text-heavy to provide more information when you have a chance to focus. Still, I think SYNC 3 could benefit from updating the UI with more modern icons, softening some borders and edges, and speeding up screen load times to help make information as pleasant to look at as it is useful.
The secondary screen on the cockpit is slightly more vibrant but uses the same, boring but legible font, with basic info like remaining electric charge, current song on the radio, and even a pop-up alert that suggests you should stop for coffee or a rest if it senses you’ve been driving too long and are starting to veer out of the lane. The steering wheel even buzzes gently to “wake” you up (mostly, it was just a little ticklish). You can customize the dashboard to be as information-rich as you want, but most of these tools don’t offer much to enhance the driving experience.
One of the screens you can leave on has weird “efficiency leaves” that grow more abundantly when you’re driving economically. These graphics are supposed to coach drivers into being more aware of their fuel usage, but when you’re driving in a city where abrupt stops tend to happen more frequently due to heavy traffic, it’s a bit discouraging to watch all the leaves sadly fall off the vine like you’re some kind of terrible carbon monster.
Ford also has a system that rates you on a 100 percent scale for your braking score; it’s calculated based on how often you hard brake, since that wastes fuel. Again, this is Ford’s way of attempting to coach efficient driving, but this mostly made me feel like I was being tested every time I took the car out on the road. Unless you’re into letting Ford grade your driving abilities, you’ll probably never use these secondary screens except to see how much gas is left in the tank.
Lastly, there is an optional third screen that lives on your smartphone via the MyFord Mobile app. If you opt for a $49 annual subscription (conveniently free for the first five years,) you can use the app to remote start / lock / unlock the vehicle, or find its last known location in case you forget where you’ve parked.
Though these are incredibly helpful tools, the app is visually unattractive and confusing, with the hamburger menu icon jumping from bottom left to upper right to upper left depending on the screen you’re on. The loading screen alone looks like it hasn’t been updated since the late 2000s, which juxtaposed harshly against the cozy and modern interior of the car itself. For $49 a year, I expect the app to feel as premium as the feature, and this doesn’t seem very convincing.
There are several buttons on the steering wheel that act as shortcuts for adjusting the radio, skipping songs, changing the audio volume, and activating the voice assistant. I’m a pretty petite person, but even I found the buttons to be a little crammed on the right-hand side. Hitting the skip button often accidentally raised the volume, or triggered the voice assistant. I already fat finger often on my smartphone and laptop — and now that shame has moved into the car, too.
The Ford Fusion Energi swaps the shift gear for a rotational dial, which took a bit to get used to compared to the stick-style shift in my personal Ford Escape, but I ended up quite liking the dial. There is a nice and satisfying click to each spin, with enough weight in between so that you seldom over-rotate and can easily move between shifts without looking down. It also allows for more arm space to move between the wheel, the cup holder, and the main dash.
All your basic climate controls are at the center of the vehicle, but I found that two buttons were curiously missing from my Platinum model of the Fusion Energi: the heated steering wheel and the other that controls air ventilation directions. I had to quadruple check that I wasn’t hallucinating that I was missing buttons. To turn on or change either of these two features, you have to go back to SYNC 3 on the center touchscreen — Android Auto and CarPlay can’t help with turning those hardware components on. For all that Ford put in to optimizing the display and layout for driver safety, I found the lack of these standard buttons to be rather unfortunate. (The weather changes quickly in New York City!)
Last year, Ford CEO Mark Fields told The Verge that he wanted Ford to be a technology company in addition to an automotive one. But Ford’s insistence on using third-party partners to power voice recognition and GPS, then subsequently punting SYNC 3’s shortcomings to the vendors, is disconcerting.
In an interview with Ford, I learned that navigation is an area from which it gets the most customer feedback, and it’s easy to see why. On my first day with the car, its Sirius-powered GPS estimated a 12-minute drive between my apartment and the Vox Media office. In actuality, the suggested route took 42 minutes. Nearly four times as long! Ford tells me that real-time traffic data is whatever Sirius sends over the air to its system, but it still feels inexcusable, especially when the Apple- and Google-powered navigation it also supports work so much better.
SYNC 3 also uses Nuance for its voice recognition, and while it’s able to understand key words pretty easily, I often found that I needed to say things in specific phrases to get Ford to register the command. For example, I asked it to locate a nearby charging station, and it prompted the car to request a location. But when I answered “New York,” SYNC 3 didn’t understand. What it actually needed was for me to first say “City,” then specify “New York.”
This two-step process extends to locating an address for navigation. Rather than saying “Directions to 85 Broad Street,” you first have to ask to find an address, say the full address, identify the correct location if there’s more than one place with the same address (which happens more often than you’d think), then set it as the destination. This is incredibly frustrating if you don’t have time to pull over to fully get the directions before heading off. It makes me question if I should trust Ford on “smart mobility initiatives” like ride-sharing and autonomous driving when it can’t even simplify a basic user experience issue.
Aside from SYNC 3 being slower to use than Android Auto, I often steered clear of using Ford’s software because of its handling of incoming and outgoing text messages. SYNC 3 has an awkward time pronouncing ethnic names, which is cringeworthy to the point where I had to stop it mid-read of an incoming message. Names like “Nilay Patel,” for example, are read as “Ne-Lay Paddle.” Each outgoing text also automatically adds a signature (“This message was sent from my Ford”) that you cannot remove.
Additionally, instead of just the text message itself, SYNC 3 would often read the entire metadata such as date, time received, to, from, and phone number before finally getting to the message. If you’re used to getting multiple short messages as opposed to one long text (and I suspect that’s a majority of us young folks), expect to spend five minutes just to hear SYNC 3 read three messages that say “Okay,” “Let’s meet at 3PM,” “Does that work with you?”
Between the generic display system and slow but functional voice-activated system, SYNC 3 is underwhelming, particularly coming off Fields’ emphasis on the company becoming “more skilled” in software. Sure, SYNC 3 gives you some flexibility to do what you need to do to drive safely, and it gets the job done if you’re low on smartphone data or in an area with a minimal cell network. But as unlimited data plans make a comeback, voice assistant and smartphone casting integrations will become more useful than ever inside of a car. If Ford doesn’t improve SYNC 3, then, from a software perspective, it offers little competitive advantage over other vehicles that have the same app integrations.
Which finally brings me to the Alexa integration. While Alexa is a joy to use coming off of SYNC 3, setting it up is by far the worst part of the experience. You’re required to download the very dated MyFord Mobile app, enter the car’s VIN, hook it up to your Amazon account, authorize the car to your account by physically pressing an on-screen prompt (which requires the car to be on), then wait 24 hours for the authorization to be approved. In my particular attempt, the vehicle failed to authorize the sync without providing any explanation, so I had to start the process over — meaning it took two days before I was able to use Alexa in the Fusion Energi.
Once it was set up, however, transferring that living room experience to the car felt exceptionally natural, albeit limited. Rather than using the ugly app, you can say a command to an Echo speaker at home to remote start / lock / unlock (assuming you pay the $49 yearly fee), which was great for preheating the car on a snowy day. You can also ask Alexa to play songs from Amazon Prime Music, read an Audible book, or add items to your shopping list as you’re driving. Like Android Auto, the Alexa software appears to be better at voice recognition in the car than SYNC 3.
But… that’s about it.
More complex applications involving smart home gadgets, like asking Alexa to adjust your home thermostat before you arrive, are forthcoming. While the current functionalities are narrow, the idea of a rideable Echo should be very appealing to families who already rely on the speaker as a central hub to all their other smart home devices and Amazon Prime account. Still, that’s a big if on when those Alexa skills would actually become available through SYNC 3. Pretty soon, Ford isn’t going to be the only car that works with Alexa, Android Auto, and CarPlay — and as we’ve seen with Google and Apple, it doesn’t matter who was first to a feature, it’s who implements it best that gets the attention of the general consumer.
Though I had problems with Ford’s SYNC 3 and some of the car’s button configurations, I still found incredible value in the Fusion Energi. Starting at $31,120 with the latest third-party integrations, hyper-efficient fuel economy, and sleek interior, that seems like the right amount of money to spend on a car that’s compatible with an OS you already use everywhere else.
I just hope Ford rethinks how it wants to innovate as a technology company. Given how quickly new Alexa skills are added on the Echo, I’m more confident in Amazon’s abilities to update Alexa for the car than in Ford to fine-tune SYNC 3. Self-driving vehicles and drone-launching delivery vans may seem like trends Ford thinks it needs to hop on, but above all that, it should start back inside the infotainment screen before getting lost in a futuristic fantasy.