Ford unveils new in-car technology features

Published: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.
Last Modified: Friday, January 8, 2010 at 11:11 a.m.

LAS VEGAS — 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 turbo charge its financial turnaround and polish the Dearborn, Mich., company's image to be the Apple Inc. of the car industry.

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

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

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

This year, Ford gave outside developers a chance to bring their mobile apps to SYNC, allowing drivers to, for example, use the car's controls to summon Pandora Internet radio as the app itself sits on an iPhone or other smart phone. It's 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 from about 100 when SYNC was first introduced nearly two years ago to well over 1,000.

The company also introduced MyFord, which includes the ability for individual drivers to customize their own home screen or set the cabin temperature. The car would recognize the driver, either by their personal key fob or their voice, and automatically pull up those settings.

The technology is a key component to Ford's efforts to speed up its rebound and regain market share, which had slipped from 25 percent in the early 1990s to 15.5 percent today.

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

Of those who bought a SYNC-enabled car, about a third said that the feature was important, if not critical, to their decision to buy Ford, while 77 percent reported that 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. grew by over a percentage point in 2009. Ford shares, which traded as low as $1 early last year, on Thursday gained 29 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $11.66, the highest since March 14, 2005.

In-vehicle entertainment and information technology is becoming increasingly common to 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 remotely control a number of car settings, from unlocking the doors to starting up the car, from their iPhone, BlackBerry Storm or Motorola Droid smart phones. The Volt, a plug-in hybrid, is set to come out later this year. A similar technology is being implemented on Mercedez 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 question whether the added features would distract drivers from the road.

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 to not encourage Web surfing while driving. It also said it will allow only applications that would not pose a risk of distracting drivers, so playing video games would be out.

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