General Motors began developing a touch-screen infotainment system for Cadillac in late 2008, when Ford Motor Co. was in the early stages of work on a similar offering, MyFord Touch.
But MyFord Touch hit the market almost two years sooner, on the 2011 Edge. As complaints poured in and Ford's quality ratings plunged, GM took its time before releasing CUE -- the Cadillac User Experience -- this June, on the 2013 XTS.
The extra time allowed GM, which had employees ride along on commutes, errands and even a vacation to study how drivers interact with their cars and mobile devices, to work more bugs out of the system and fine-tune it. For instance, it changed how some screens were laid out and improved compatibility with newer devices.
"Being first isn't always the best because of that," says Jeff Massimilla, the CUE program manager.
Ford's play to be a first mover and prove itself a technology innovator has been a lesson for an industry that often battles to be first at everything. While falling too far behind can cause plenty of problems as well, following quickly as someone else leads can be an effective strategy.
"Ford took one for the team," says Dave Sargent, vice president of global automotive at J.D. Power and Associates. "As we started to see the problems with MyFord Touch, many of the other [automakers] quickly started to rethink what they were planning. Some of them were sort of too far gone and are coming to market with things that don't look that different from what Ford did."
Ford succeeded in making a big splash when it revealed MyFord Touch, earning wide praise at the 2010 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. Ford CEO Alan Mulally highlighted the system as evidence the company was rapidly embracing new technologies, saying it would give smartphone-addicted consumers a reason to look at Ford cars and trucks.
Then MyFord Touch came out. The Ford brand plunged from fifth place in J.D. Power's 2010 Initial Quality Study to 23rd last year and 27th in 2012. Lincoln, which has a nearly identical system, dropped from eighth to 17th to 20th. Consumer Reports recently wrote on its blog that it "wouldn't recommend dealing with the frustrations of MyFord Touch on a daily basis even to an adversary."
Some owners' complaints had to do with glitches that Ford addressed in a major software update this year. Still, many people were frustrated and overwhelmed by the system's complicated, cluttered design.
Sargent says he expects other automakers to get dinged in future surveys as infotainment systems become more common, but Ford probably got the worst of it by virtue of being first to integrate so much of a mass-market vehicle's controls into one system.
"It's pretty much a journey that everybody's going to go through," Sargent says. "Those who go later do have the benefit of having a chance to minimize the problems, so a lot of them won't necessarily be hit to the same degree as Ford was."
BMW found itself in a similar firestorm a decade ago when introducing its iDrive system, which uses a console-mounted dial to control numerous functions. Customers and critics rebelled, and BMW reworked iDrive, adding more dedicated buttons for frequently used functions.
So iDrive no longer is a liability for BMW, but the system still has its downside, says James Riswick, automotive editor at Edmunds.com. Much like MyFord Touch, iDrive "does a decent job with the more complicated things" Riswick says. "It's the simple things that it sort of bungles."
Ford's decision to remove many traditional knobs and mechanical switches in favor of touch-screen controls has been a major point of criticism. Instead of being able to locate a familiar button with a quick glance or by feel, drivers lament having to take their eyes off the road to locate the proper spot on the screen, or buttons that are designed to be flush with the center stack rather than protrude. Common tasks that should be simple, such as adjusting the temperature, can require multiple finger presses.
Among the changes Ford made in response to customer feedback was to move the heated-seat control onto the home screen instead of burying it down several levels of menus.