Opinion: Ford’s ‘virtual carnival in your car’


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Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally’s keynote at the International Consumer Electronics Show today made me think two things. First, the company is doing something very clever and cool in its cars, taking advantage of the mobile connection virtually every driver now carries to bring online apps to life in the car. The apps platform my colleague Alex Pham wrote about Wednesday, combined with the ability of car owners to send information from their PCs to their cars (think directions and points of interest), will make drivers more Web-connected, informed and entertained.

Not to mention distracted, which brings me to point No. 2. What Ford is doing is utterly politically incorrect. While lawmakers across the country are passing progressively tighter strictures on what people can do in their cars, Ford is developing technology that makes it easier for drivers to gab on the phone, scan for nearby restaurants and keep up with incoming text messages.


The reaction from safety advocates has been, um, less than enthusiastic. Consider the screech emanating from Common Sense Media ...

... a group that focuses on helping families shield children from inappropriate types of entertainment:

Multiple LCD screens, personalized color schemes, browseable phone books, touch screens, song tagging, and the means to transform a car into a mobile internet hub – wow, that’s a virtual carnival in your car. Ford calls their system a ‘simpler, smarter, safer’ way to stay connected while driving, and though it’s an exciting development for wireless technology, it’s clearly a dangerous precedent for young drivers who already admit to being distracted.

Ford executives argue that people are going to be fumbling with their iPods, texting on their BlackBerrys and looking up directions regardless of what carmakers (or policymakers) do. So by bringing such activities into its Sync system, where they can be controlled by uttering commands or manipulating switches on the steering wheel, Ford is making them less distracting. As Mulally put it in an interview Wednesday, ‘You don’t want them looking at another device. ... We really think you’ll be more focused.’

Obviously, the market will decide how far Ford can go. Some companies are racing in the other direction; in fact, there are several at CES (including, believe it or not, Taser) showing off technologies that limit what drivers can do behind the wheel. Meanwhile, Ford’s sales numbers say the public is on its side. Derrick Kuzak, group vice president of product development, said Fords equipped with the Sync connectivity technology sell twice as quickly as those that aren’t. And its surveys show that Sync makes people more likely to buy a Ford, and more satisfied with their cars after they drive them home.

So here’s something to ponder. If Ford had taken federal bailout dollars alongside General Motors and Chrysler in 2008 and 2009, would it be free to do things that fly in the face of what policymakers and lobbyists want? Would it be coming out with ever more powerful versions of Sync, or would it be pursuing a technology agenda that’s closer to Washington’s heart -- say, by putting its chips on electric cars instead of mobile phones?

A key part of Mulally’s strategy since he took over in 2006 has been to give Ford a reputation for being on the leading edge of technology in cars. Sync certainly helps in that regard. Its strategy of leveraging the connectivity and software of the rapidly innovating mobile phone industry positions Ford to ‘move with the whole cellphone industry,’ as Kuzak put it. Oh and by the way, Ford’s share of the U.S. market climbed to 15.5%, more than a percentage point higher than it was a year ago. That’s a far cry from the mid-20s of a decade ago, but Ford’s heading in a better direction than GM or Chrysler.

Updated, Friday 2:36 p.m.: The folks at Ford evidently interpreted my comment about electric cars as a swipe at the automakers’ efforts on that front. Spokesman John Clinard passed along a press release from last month that summarized Ford’s plans as follows:

In 2009, Ford launched an aggressive plan to bring pure battery-electric vehicles, next-generation lithium-ion battery powered hybrids and a plug-in hybrid to market quickly and more affordably during the next four years. The vehicles include:

o Transit Connect battery-electric commercial van in 2010
o Focus Electric passenger car in 2011
o Next-generation hybrid vehicle in 2012
o Plug-in hybrid in 2012

So obviously, Ford has been advancing the technology in its dashboard in addition to pursuing a green agenda, not instead of doing so. But then, the market wants better fuel economy, too.

-- Jon Healey