Ford CEO Alan Mulally recently wrapped up today’s keynote speech, an argument that the company is not only working hard to incorporate technology into its cars but also into its corporate DNA; “we are a car company but we are learning to think and act like an electronics company,” said vice president of product development Derrick Kuzak during speech time borrowed from Mulally. Emulating the successful tech industry could be an important move for the company, especially at a time when two-thirds of the Big Three require massive government intervention to stay afloat–a fact that was never mentioned outright but gave the talk a special relevance.
Whether Ford succeeds in its goal of creating a technology-oriented “new Ford Motor Company” depends on how good those technologies are. Mulally and other Ford officials mentioned 5 main information technologies that they said were making the company the hands-down leader in in-car information, entertainment, and connectivity:
1) SYNC is Ford’s system, powered by Microsoft, that lets you use speech to control some electronics plugged into our car (phone and music player) and some functions in the car itself (911 calls and “vehicle health reports”–driving directions will be added this spring, and movie listings and stock quotes later in the year). More a platform than a particular than a particular technology, SYNC will support many of the other technologies Ford’s working on.
2) MyKey, which will let parents set maximum limits on the speed of the car and volume of the stereo while their kids are driving. It arrives first with the 2010 Ford Focus. The crowd liked this one.
3) This spring the company will introduce Ford Work Solutions, which uses an in-dash computer with Sprint 3G cellular service to give contractors regular computer functionality–email, browser, productivity apps–while at a job site or on the road. The system also uses LogMeIn to connect the dashboard device with a home or office computer.
4) SmartGauge with EcoGuide turns hypermiling–the use of various driving tricks to get really extremely impressive gas mileage. LCD displays on either side of the steering wheel give drivers real-time feedback on how they’re doing–increase your gas mileage and more leaves will grow on a little vine. How green. This feature goes live in the 2010 Ford Fusion hybrid, which gets 41 miles per gallon on the highway.
5) The golden nugget from the talk was the first announcement of Ford’s plan to make a “totally configurable cockpit” for drivers. This would entail a dashboard covered with LCDs, any of which could be programmed to show whatever car data you wanted. The displays from the SmartGauge seemed to be the precedent here, but there wasn’t a very concrete explanation of how this would work, or when we might expect it. There was, however, a video showing how a CG character named EVA (Emotive Voice Activation) could help a driver use all of this fantastic computer power that cars may have in the future: finding fuel-efficient routes, adding dates to our calendars, doing smart Web searches, etc. The functionalities were pretty amazing–enough to make any gadget head pretty geeked up–though EVA did have a dollop of HAL-like spookiness.