CES: Ford’s Sync puts apps into cars

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Need a billion-dollar corporate turnaround? There’s an app for that.

Hitching a ride with the fast-paced Internet and consumer electronics industry, Ford Motor Co. on Thursday unveiled new features for its Sync in-car technology designed to turbocharge the company’s financial turnaround and create Ford’s image as the Apple Inc. of the car industry.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ford Chief Executive Alan Mulally showed off how consumers could soon catch up on Twitter, listen to Internet radio, check movie times and get free maps with turn-by-turn directions, using Sync’s voice commands or 8-inch color touch-screen in the dashboard, in Ford’s spring lineup of cars.

“These are the features that set us apart,” Mulally said in his keynote speech.

Sporting a homespun look -- a red sweater vest, white Oxford shirt and khakis -- Mulally boasted that his Dearborn, Mich., company had already sold 1 million vehicles equipped with previous versions of Sync as of May, seven months earlier than the goal he announced last January in his first CES keynote speech.

This year, Ford gave outside developers a chance to integrate their mobile applications with Sync so drivers could use the car’s controls to summon, for example, Pandora Internet radio. (The apps themselves sit on an iPhone or other smart phone.)

Ford is also pairing up with companies such as AOL Inc.’s MapQuest and Google Inc. to wirelessly bring street directions and other information to its cars. And it expanded the number of voice commands recognized -- to well over 1,000 from about 100 when Sync was introduced nearly two years ago.

The company also introduced MyFord, which lets each driver of a shared car build a profile with personal preferences, such as cabin temperature and a customized home screen. The car would recognize the individual drivers, by either their personal key fobs or their voices, and automatically apply those settings.

The technology is a key component of Ford’s efforts to speed up its rebound and regain market share, which slipped from 25% in the early 1990s to 15.5% last year.

So far, Sync appears to be helping Ford with its turnaround. Cars equipped with Sync sell twice as fast as the same models without the technology, said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president for global product development.

Of those who bought a car with Sync, about a third said the feature was important, if not crucial, to their decision to buy Ford, and 77% reported they would recommend the vehicle to a friend, Mulally said.

Ford’s financial health also has improved. It turned a profit in the third quarter, and its market share in the U.S. rose more than a percentage point in 2009. Ford stock, which traded as low as $1 early last year, on Thursday climbed 29 cents, or 2.6%, to $11.66, the highest since March 14, 2005.

In-vehicle entertainment and information technology is becoming increasingly common in the industry, which is desperately seeking ways to entice buyers in a tight economy.

General Motors Corp. this week, for example, announced a new application that would let owners of its Chevrolet Volt use their smart phones to remotely control a number of settings, from unlocking the doors to starting up the car. The Volt, a plug-in hybrid, is set to come out this year. A similar feature is being implemented on Mercedes-Benz vehicles.

“Many manufacturers have these kinds of systems,” said Rebecca Lindland, director of the autos group for IHS Global Insight, a consulting firm based in Lexington, Mass. “But Sync has really broadened what their cars are capable of relative to the competition.”

At the same time, some wonder whether the added options would distract drivers from driving.

Ford maintains that Sync’s voice-command feature lets drivers keep their eyes on the road instead of fumbling with their phones. Ford also built in some safeguards, such as disabling the car’s Wi-Fi connection once the car is shifted out of park so as not to encourage Web surfing while driving. It also said it would allow only applications that would not endanger drivers, so playing video games would be out.

Sync is strategic to Ford in another way, Lindland said.

In five years, 57% of the car-buying public will be under 50 years old, she said. “That means there will be an awful lot of people out there multi-tasking while they’re driving. That is the reality of people’s lives, so why not be proactive and let people do those things as safely as possible?”