Ford touts its leadership in in-car connectivity

During a CES keynote address, Alan Mulally, the CEO of the automotive giant, talked up his company's initiatives in getting Internet-based applications into millions of its cars.

Daniel Terdiman Former Senior Writer / News
Daniel Terdiman is a senior writer at CNET News covering Twitter, Net culture, and everything in between.
Daniel Terdiman
3 min read
During his keynote address at CES Thursday, Ford CEO Alan Mulally--along with several other Ford executives--emphasized that the car giant is interested in being a leader in in-car connectivity. Daniel Terdiman/CNET News

LAS VEGAS--Ford on Thursday announced a series of innovations aimed at giving drivers more a higher degree of Internet connectivity as well as a slew of tools devoted to helping them get to where they're going in the most efficient way possible.

The car giant's new initiatives were unveiled as part of CEO Alan Mullaly's keynote address at the Consumer Electronics Show here. And while some of the technology Mulally and a series of subordinates discussed was part of Ford's previously announced and available Sync partnership with Microsoft, much was all-new.

Mulally began his talk by touting the fact that Ford is nearing 1 million Sync-equipped cars on the road. Then he set the tone for the keynote by explaining that the company's major technological goal for the near future of its vehicles is to load them with as much connectivity as possible, all in a bid to bridge the gap between drivers' homes and their ultimate destinations.

One surprise early in the address was the unexpected arrival on-stage of Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer, who gave his own keynote talk Wednesday evening here.

Ballmer was really just window dressing, though, for an hour-long advertisement for the latest elements of the Sync program and the ways Ford hopes to bring a never-offline state of existence to the owners of its vehicles.

"We are a car company," Mulally said, "but we are learning to act like an electronics company."

Connectivity was definitely the watch-word Thursday as each Ford executive to speak talked about a different piece of the puzzle that the company is working on to make sure its customers are always-on.

First up was Derrick Kuzak, Ford's group vice president for global product development. He explained that the company's goal is based on three things: beamed-in connectivity, such as from satellite; brought-in connectivity, such as from drivers' own cell phones; and built-in connectivity, such as dash displays.

And all together, Kuzak said, Ford wants to build a platform for drivers that emphasizes speed, scale and affordability.

Kuzak talked about one innovation the company has been working on at its Virtual Test Track Environment, or Virttex, called MyKey. This, he said, is a technology designed to promote safe driving habits for teenagers by allowing parents to program an ignition key to limit a car's top speed, as well as the volume of its sound system.

Another advance Ford is promising is the ability to synchronize applications from mobile devices like Apple's iPhone with the car. That would mean, apparently, being able to run applications like Pandora, via the iPhone, by using control buttons on the car's steering wheel. Similarly, it should be possible for drivers to get access and manipulate their Facebook or MySpace accounts using voice commands.

Later in the keynote, Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of electrical and electronics systems engineering, explained how the company plans to incorporate human machine interfacing (HMI) into its cars. The first application of that, he said, would be something called SmartGauge.

So, for example, a driver of a Ford with this feature would find him or herself coached by the system on how to get maximum fuel efficiency out of their hybrid vehicle.

This, of course, is essentially hypermiling, but with an educational assist from the vehicle itself.

Buczkowski also unveiled a futuristic prototype of a car dash that is packed with smart digital features, as well as an avatar companion known as the Emotive Voice Activation (EVA) system.

EVA, Buczkowski explained, would allow drivers to speak voice commands and basically interact with the car, getting intelligent directions--including those between point A and B that are most fuel efficient--as well as recommendations for music appropriate for any given situation and much more.

Much of what was on display Thursday seemed like it wouldn't be ready any time soon. But on the other hand, it was a fascinating glimpse of what is surely just around the corner, not just for Fords but for all vehicles.

And it's interesting to see such advanced technology coming from a company that has seemed in other ways to be anything but ahead of the times.

Still, with a company as large as Ford, there is bound to be some cutting edge thinking, and it was definitely on display Thursday.