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Ford brings digital comforts to cars

CEO Alan Mulally, in keynote address, touts the latest in-car technology for upcoming models that let drivers connect to smartphone apps using voice commands.

Editors' note: Mulally's speech was covered live here.

LAS VEGAS--Ford CEO Alan Mulally says tech geeks will feel right at home in Ford cars.

Mulally delivered the Thursday morning keynote at the 2010 International CES, where he said "smart technology" such as access to smartphones and fuel efficiency are core to Ford's strategy.

"Green technology and smart innovation are helping us serve our customers and differentiate Ford," Mulally said.

Ford CEO Alan Mulally giving a keynote address Thursday morning at CES in Las Vegas. James Martin/CNET

He started his talk noting the surge in usage of online applications like Twitter and Facebook in the past year. Ford's Sync software allows drivers to access these applications through smartphones using Sync's voice activation features.

"Fortunately, the connectivity that Ford chose has proven to be right because it has the ability to accommodate change...and connectivity through a mobile phone," he said.

Mulally said Ford plans to extend its pilot program, in which Best Buy will help Ford drivers become familiar with the Sync voice software, to California and Pennsylvania. Its first trial found that drivers enjoy the voice activation features, once they are familiar with them, he said.

Update, 9:40 a.m. PST: Following Mulally, Ford's Derrik Kuzak discussed the company's design goals in updating the car's in-cabin technology and its strategy for fostering innovation within Ford cars.

Ford's design premise is that consumers want to remain connected to their mobile devices or data in the cloud, even when they are in a car.

"Customers say they want a Swiss Army knife device that includes a digital camera and an MP3 player in a simple, elegant device. That's what Ford is doing to the automobile," Kuzak said.

The company enlisted University of Michigan students to work with the application development kit for Ford's Sync software, and they were able to quickly create iPhone applications, he said. Now more car-friendly applications, such as ones that let drivers warn others of weather ahead, he said, can be developed.

Derrick Kuzak, group vice president of Ford's Global Product Development, discusses the company's design goals. James Martin/CNET

"The sky, or should I say the cloud, is the limit," he said.

Using voice commands to access music and communicate is far safer than fiddling with car consoles or gadgets, according to Ford. In a study, it found that the average person spent 25 seconds to select a song from a handheld music player, compared to 2 seconds with Sync.

9:46 a.m. PST: Following Kuzak, Jim Buczkowski, director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering at Ford, gave a walk-through of MyFord Touch, the revamped in-car interface.

To develop the system, Ford has created teams of auto engineers and "Silicon Valley types." It also worked with design firm IDEO on how to simplify the controls, which are built around two LCDs next to the odometer, and another 8-inch screen in the car's center stack that uses a consistent color system for entertainment, telephony, climate control, and navigation.

Different Ford brands will have their own versions of MyFord Touch, starting with MyLincoln Touch, which will be available later this year, with the 2011 MKX.

Later this year, MyFord Touch is set to be available in the 2011 crossover Ford Edge. It will later be available in the 2012 Ford Fusion. In five years, Ford plans to have this interface available in 80 percent of its cars.

9:59 a.m. PST: Following a demo of how the Sync system can be customized, a Ford executive gave an overview of Ford's connectivity strategy and announced new features, including the ability to link information from the Web to the car's Sync system.

Ford has formed a partnership with MapQuest that will allow a person to get directions from the Web and send it to a Ford car, using Ford Service Delivery Network. When in the car, people use voice commands to access it and view it on the navigation system.

In addition, Ford announced that it plans to support the Message Access Profile, which uses Bluetooth to read text messages through the car's audio system. People can reply with a set of 15 voice-activated commands.

10:06 a.m. PST: Next up is Julius Marchwicki, product manager for connected services solutions, to further discuss the strategy behind Ford's plans to integrate smartphone applications with Sync.

The company has a software development kit, or SDK, that lets mobile developers create a version for Sync; the first are streaming-media applications Pandora and Stitcher, along with Twitter.

"Our focus on mobile apps with streaming content was a good choice, just based on the number of people driving with earbuds," said Marchwicki, adding that 55 percent of Pandora users listen in the car.

Through the Sync API, developers can activate text-to-speech, give voice commands, and access vehicle data, Marchwicki explained. They can also use Wi-Fi, Bluetooth, or USB-based connectivity using the development language of their mobile device, such as an iPhone or BlackBerry.

10:18 a.m. PST:To finish the keynote, Mulally returned briefly to the stage to say Ford is seeking to meet customer demands by emulating the fast-paced innovation of the digital-technology industry.