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Ford CEO: More Tech Means Less Driver Distraction

As Ford turns to IT to redefine its product line and image, it answers questions about whether gizmo-laden cars are less safe cars.

The Detroit Auto Show coincided with the Consumer Electronics Show last week, forcing Ford CEO Alan Mulally to shuttle between Detroit and Las Vegas, where his company's CES presence continues to grow each year. At CES, Ford unveiled the 2013 Ford Fusion Energi, a cloud-connected Evos concept car, new partners for its SYNC AppLink technology, and a bunch of new ideas for the future.

(SYNC, developed by Ford to work on Microsoft's embedded windows auto platform, is Ford's voice-activated connectivity technology, now in 4 million cars. AppLink enables SYNC for BlackBerry and Android smartphone apps, using BlueTooth, and for iPhone apps using USB--a video demonstration of the technology is embedded below. MyFord Touch is an in-dashboard touch interface for entertainment, phone, and navigation.)

Mulally was practically giddy to hold court before a handful of technology journalists at a private dinner early in the week, with his key executives in tow. He took questions in roundtable fashion and asked for future technology trends and potholes Ford might face.

Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas, who also heads up research and innovation, said technology is one of Ford's key differentiators and will redefine the company’s image and reputation. "Having a commitment to consistently deliver that technology, that starts from the very top of the company," he said, pointing to Mulally's presence at CES and his willingness to engage in what became a spirited debate about distracted driving, which erupted just as coffee and dessert arrived.

"There's a tsunami headed your way," warned Lance Ulanoff, editor-in-chief of Mashable, referring to the National Transportation Safety Board's recent call for banning cell phone use while driving.

When asked whether Ford is prepared to deal with such legislation, potentially coming state-by-state, Mulally was resolute: "This [technology] is the way the world is going...people aren't going to be disconnected in a connected world." Mulally said he thinks auto manufacturers will collectively find a way through this issue and noted that Ford is investing a lot of money and resources to address it. Ultimately, he thinks technology will be the solution, not the problem: "The solutions we have in place...absolutely will remove driver distraction,"Mulally said.

In other words, as auto makers stuff their cars with even more technology, that technology will essentially remove the other technology distractions, not add to them. And there's a compelling case to support this notion.

Ford, along with other auto manufacturers, has figured out ways to let drivers control a mobile phone from the systems within the car. Ford's SYNC AppLink lets voice commands instruct a mobile phone's applications; Ford supplies APIs that application partners can expose. For example, a driver could command National Public Radio to play NPR News (or other NPR programs), or instruct Telenav's Scout to provide traffic information, pull up favorite routes, or play music. These are fairly normal driver functions that typically require a hand or two to leave the steering wheel and eyes to leave the road, if only briefly.

On the other hand, Roximity, an AppLink app, provides car drivers with location-aware daily deals, introducing an entirely new stream of information into the moving vehicle--and potentially new distractions. Mulally kept emphasizing how Ford's technology lets drivers keep their hands on the steering wheel, but the real question is how much streaming data a driver's brain can manage without losing focus.

Also at CES, Research In Motion showed off QNX Software's concept Porsche Carrera, with its dynamic instrumentation cluster capable of personalization--a drive in the country might provide the dashboard with one set of information (turn-by-turn directions, the normal speedometer, etc.), while a drive on the racetrack might provide another (the shape of the track and the driver's location on it, tachometer, and so on.) These digital clusters will become the norm, but the line between safety-enhancing data and information overload is a thin one.

Several journalists pressed Mulally on whether Active Park Assist (automatic parallel parking at the touch of a button, available in several Ford models and cars from other manufacturers) hints at a something like Google's autonomous car. The former Boeing executive reminded the gathered diners that airplanes can take off and land (and fly) themselves, but that the airline industry learned that machines "cannot replicate how humans deal with adverse conditions."

In other words, while self-driving modes are possible in cars, that capability is unlikely to materialize except for niche applications. Mulally added that technology is getting better at assisting human drivers with situational awareness, using cameras and sensors.

Ford's concept car for CES was the Evos, a sporty vehicle that pulls together several important technology trends. For one thing, the Evos is cloud-connected, promising to let drivers transfer music and other data between home and car, for a more personalized experience. Such data can include the driver's schedule, weather info, and other local data.

Ford's splashy concept car, the Evos, at CES
(click image for larger view)
Ford's splashy concept car, the Evos, at CES

The Evos includes a heart-rate monitor built into the driver's seat, which presumably could be fed into a system (in the cloud, of course) that could not only detect health issues, but also give clues about driver awareness or alertness, or adjust conditions for a better driving experience.

The 2013 Ford Focus electric car contains a trip-planning and charging-station database. Telematics in the car will instruct the car to charge in off-peak hours by sending electric rates to the car automatically, based on its location.

The 2013 Ford Fusion comes in a variety of models, including hybrid and plug-in hybrid, and it will use Ford's Lane Keeping system (a camera on the windshield wipers that detects road lane dividers) to alert a veering driver (using a tone and flashing light, but a taser might be more fun.) The Fusion will also include Adaptive Cruise Control, which sets the car’s speed to travel with traffic, keeping the appropriate distance from other cars.

Ford Fusion 2013's interior dashboard
(click image for larger view)
Ford Fusion 2013's interior dashboard

As Ford attempts to make technology the answer to the same problem it seems to be creating, Mulally said that one of the lessons Ford learned from early experiences with MyFordTouch is that the company must simplify every aspect of the technology that goes into a car. "That's why we're so bullish on voice," he said.

As InformationWeek's Chris Murphy wrote recently as the auto company readied USB sticks for touch screen upgrades, Ford is becoming a software company. Or, as Mascarenas put it: "Ford integrates technologies, software, and electronics at the same pace as the most innovative companies in the world. Our platform just happens to be the car."

With that sort of aspiration comes tremendous responsibility. For example, it means that Ford and its dealers must become more technologically savvy, even serving as a line of technology support for drivers. And as cars monitor health and create personalized experiences for drivers, and as Ford strives to learn more about its drivers, it must also understand how to ensure its customers that their privacy is adequately protected.

Ford took one further step to re-inforce its commitment to the notion of car-as-a-platform: It announced at CES that it would open an R&D facility in Silicon Valley, headed by K. Venkatesh Prasad, senior technical leader for open innovation with Ford Research and Innovation. However, in its press release about the move, Ford noted that Prasad would not be relocating, just traveling to the facility as part of his job. The announcement went on to say: "The number of Ford employees at its new lab will be comparable to what you expect of a startup, with an emphasis on quality over quantity." When pressed, Mulally said he expected Ford to have 10 employees at the Silicon Valley facility by the end of this year.

It’s a start, but surely it’s also a chance for an even bigger infusion of ideas. The company has already begun turning the car into a traveling, information-collecting machine, using cameras and sensors to understand weather and traffic, Mascarenas said.

He said the company's recent research shows that half of its customers cited technology as a reason they bought a Ford car.

It must be doing something right.

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User Rank: Apprentice
1/20/2012 | 7:07:08 PM
re: Ford CEO: More Tech Means Less Driver Distraction
"The solutions we have in place...absolutely will remove driver distraction,"Mulally said.
Did he really say that? He must have meant "reduce driver distraction". No amount of voice based interaction can remove distraction.
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