Is the car owner's manual history? 2021 Ford F-150 ditches traditional paper copy
Online videos are the new owner’s manual for many car owners.
What does the check engine light mean? Google it. How do you change the clock? Find a video on YouTube.
Or, as a growing number of automakers would like you to do, look it up using the touchscreen on your vehicle’s center console.
That’s precisely what Ford is hoping customers will do with the redesigned Ford F-150, the forthcoming Mustang Mach-E electric crossover and all other coming models equipped with the automaker’s Sync 4 infotainment system. Ford is dumping the traditional owner’s manual in those vehicles, choosing instead to make the information accessible on the touch screen.
The only physical material about the vehicle that will be provided for free in the 2021 F-150 and Mach-E will be a booklet on how to perform certain critical activities, such as what to do if the vehicle has run out of power. It’s about a quarter of the size of the previous manual and will include information on how to jump-start the vehicle or how to change the tires, for example. Full copies of the physical manual will be available for purchase, though Ford said it hadn’t yet set a price.
F-150 shuffles away from papers
“This is the start of a wave of everybody moving in this direction,” said Craig Schmatz, chief program engineer of the F-150, the perennial best-selling vehicle in the country. “We’ll look back on the paper copies in a few years and wonder why we hadn’t moved to digital copies sooner.”
Khalal Walker is already wondering why. The software engineer from Sacramento, California, recently noticed the check engine light on his 2014 Buick LaCrosse was on. Rather than reaching for the owner’s manual, he tapped out a YouTube search on his iPhone. He used that knowledge to fix and replace a missing part.
“I was able to diagnose it and not have to send it to the shop, so I can fix it myself," he said. "I don’t think I’ve ever opened my glove box for the owner’s manual."
Tesla was among the first to lead the way. The electric vehicle maker has gone full digital, eliminating the paper version of its owner's manuals and including the relevant information in the infotainment system of its vehicles.
While Walker is receptive to the idea of getting rid of the traditional owner’s manual, others might not be so ready to see it go.
“I, for one, would be very upset,” said Dan Albert, author of “Are We There Yet?: The American Automobile Past, Present, and Driverless.” “I’m obviously the kind of guy who reads the manual.”
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But Albert recognizes that it has become impractical for many drivers.
“There’s so many things where it’s just easier to Google it and maybe watch a YouTube video of it than to try to actually go through the manual,” he said. “The reality is, we’re not reading the owner’s manual.”
If owner's manuals go away, it would qualify as a full-circle moment of sorts. Ford introduced manuals with the Model T around 1908 or 1909, Albert said. Before that, the owner’s manual wasn’t common.
The Model T manual instructed users to fill the radiator with water as soon as they took possession of the vehicle. It also encouraged drivers not to stretch their vehicles to the limit.
It was “teaching you how to be a driver,” Albert said.
The benefits of going digital
Going digital is enticing for reasons beyond just a lack of desire to read the equivalent of a long novel.
For a vehicle as popular as the F-150, there’s substantial paper savings. The reduced-size F-150 manual is 150 pages, down from 704, saving an expected 290 tons of paper annually, Schmatz said. That’s equal to about 122 F-150 pickups.
“It gives you more space in the glove box for other items, and it’s great for the environment,” Schmatz said.
Stephanie Brinley, principal automotive analyst at research firm IHS Markit, said it’s a natural move to move toward digital manuals given the technological advancements on the interior.
“You’ve got so much computing power in your infotainment system," she said. You can put little videos in there; you can explain to people how things work, and it’s an even richer explanation than you’re going to get on paper anyway."
Walker, the Buick LaCrosse owner, said he thinks vehicle owners will be drawn to video explainers – especially if they're trying to fix something.
"It's easier for them to have a video in front of them versus holding a book," he said.
Other automakers have also put certain information about their vehicles into their infotainment systems or apps, including Fiat Chrysler, Hyundai, BMW and Kia.
The key is to make the system easy to navigate. Otherwise, it’ll be just as hard to use, or perhaps even harder, than the bulky physical manual.
“You’ve got to make sure it works,” said Karl Brauer, executive analyst at car-shopping site iSeeCars.com.
What if you’re not tech-savvy
The challenge is that the average new-car buyer is in their 50s and might not be tech-savvy, said Rebecca Lindland, a longtime automotive analyst who reviews cars at RebeccaDrives.com.
“If you are reaching for your owner’s manual, things probably are not going well,” she said. “We’ve got to demonstrate to the consumer that this is a better solution and a more convenient solution for them than having a 2-inch thick book in there. And I think it is. But it obviously has to be very searchable and voice-activated.”
Brinley also cautioned that automakers shouldn’t go too far.
“What if you don’t have power to your car, what if you don’t have power to your phone?” she said. “Those things do still happen.”
But Jake Fisher, senior director of automotive testing for Consumer Reports, said he likes the move by Ford. Traditional owner’s manuals have become too stuffy, he said.
“It almost seems like it’s written from lawyers to lawyers. Sometimes, it’s impossible to even understand what they’re trying to say,” he said. “They become books that just no one opens.”
The bottom line: Sometimes too much information is no information.
Follow USA TODAY reporter Nathan Bomey on Twitter @NathanBomey.