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Carmakers navigate a winding road

Ford's prominence kicking off the Consumer Electronics Show reflects the amping up of car innovation at “Silicon Valley speed” while balancing the competing demands of giving drivers the tech they want while keeping their eyes safely on the road.
Image: Mulally, President and CEO of Ford Motor Company, delivers his keynote speech at the 2010 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas
Ford CEO Alan Mulally demonstrates the automaker’s MyFord all-touchscreen navigation and media system Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.MARIO ANZUONI / Reuters
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The exhibit halls of the International Consumer Electronics Show are filled with every kind of technology you can imagine — computers; audio and video systems; the biggest, thinnest television sets; gadgets; peripherals; you name it.

And cars. Lots and lots of cars.

The Consumer Electronics Association, the trade association that runs CES, underscored the importance of automotive technology Thursday by giving its show-opening main keynote address, usually the province of Microsoft Corp., to the chairman and chief executive of Ford Motor Co., Alan Mulally. It was only two years ago that Rick Wagoner, General Motors Co.’s chief executive at the time, became the first auto executive to deliver any of the half-dozen marquee addresses in the more than 30 years the association has put on the show.

Ford’s prominence at CES, where it detailed a top-to-bottom overhaul of its Sync navigation and multimedia system, reflects the amping up of car innovation at “Silicon Valley speed,” Mulally said, adding that the company was “modeling ourselves after the consumer electronics industry.”

That acceleration presents challenges for manufacturers and their software partners, however. With activists arguing that more and more tech in the car , automakers have to weigh two competing imperatives: drivers’ demand for the tech they want vs. safety activists’ lobbying that has led at least 19 states to ban the use of cellphones for texting while at the wheel.

Fully connected behind the wheelSync is in more than two-thirds of Ford’s new vehicles, part of an “in-vehicle technology” market that has mushroomed since Ford and Microsoft introduced Sync two years ago. The CEA assessed that market at more than $9.3 billion last year.

( is a joint venture of Microsoft and NBC Universal.)

“Clearly, everyone today wants to be connected,” even in the car, said Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s vice president of global product development.

But they want to use their own applications and, when possible, their own hardware. That’s why many carmakers have redesigned their systems to interface with a driver’s cell phone.

Most Americans today have some form of broadband phone connection, said David Jumpa, senior vice president of Airbiquity Inc., which develops wireless data transfer systems, and “when you bring that into your car, that is a broadband pipe.”

That lets manufacturers leave it up to the customer to “determine the data package and the provider,” said Jack Lawson, accessory product manager for Volvo Cars of North America.

Kuzak said such systems, like MyFord, the newest version of Sync, are complicated constructs, because they have to serve as the “equivalent of a Swiss army knife.” At the same time, “we have to keep interfaces simple and intuitive, and they have to minimize driver interaction” to keep distractions down, he said.

Ford’s system eliminates all buttons and switches across the console, allowing the driver to control a car’s components through simple touchscreen swipes and voice recognition. More distracting functions like Web browsing are disabled when the car is in motion.

The idea, said Jim Buczkowski, Ford’s director of electrical subsystems, is to “make the complex simple and serve up the details only when needed.”

But activists warned that the new systems, particularly MyFord, would only add to driver distraction, making the roads more dangerous.

“Ford calls their system a ‘simpler, smarter, safer’ way to stay connected while driving, and though it’s an exciting development for wireless technology, it’s clearly a dangerous precedent for young drivers who already admit to being distracted,” said Jim Steyer, chief executive of Common Sense Media, a nonprofit organization that monitors media technology and their impact on families.

“Although the car companies stress there will be safety features — like voice controls or blocking Internet use when the car is moving — it’s going to be a real challenge for teens to keep their eyes on the road when a 3-D screen flashes information while they are driving,” he said in a statement.

A computer on wheels
MyFord and similar systems are only the most prominent manifestation of the automobile as, in essence, the ultimate mobile computer.

Mulally is trying to push the idea that Ford is as much a consumer technology company as it is a car company, characterizing the dashboard as the “fourth screen” through which consumers interact with the world — the others being TVs, personal computers and mobile devices like cell phones.

The idea is catching on. More than 20 exhibitions zones dot the CES floors promoting the latest advances in car tech, from satellite navigation systems to in-car TV and video to voice-controlled communications (think Facebook and e-mail behind the wheel) to real-time engine diagnostics and location-based services, such as dashboard mapping systems that will direct you to the nearest gasoline station or coffee shop.

Real consumer technology companies, notably Microsoft, are eager to ride the wave, acknowledging that car tech retains a patina of shiny newness that can drive customer excitement as long-established desktop and phone services take on more of a commodity feel.

Kuzak said many of his ideas grew out of seeing long lines of customers lining up to get their hands on the latest iPhones, asking, “How do we create that experience for a car?”

That’s why some of the most interesting exhibits here this week promote still-to-come embedded software products for the car, eclipsing many of the computers, TVs and audio systems that traditionally hold the spotlight:

  • Safety systems like SafeDriver from Root Four Imagination Inc., which monitors teenage drivers and reports back to their parents (or tattles, depending on whether you’re the teen or the parent) and can cap the car’s maximum speed.
  • Audio systems, such as amplifiers and waterproof marine systems from Alpine Electronics Inc., which won four CES Innovation Awards for its automotive audio products.
  • Entertainment programs like Audiovox Corp.’s winning systems putting live TV and Playstation 2 in the car itself.
  • Mobile device integration, notably OnStar’s iPhone, Android and Blackberry apps, which will allow drivers to remotely start the coming Volt electric car from Chevrolet and monitor its performance and charging status.

There are even full in-dash computers, like Ford’s Work Solutions, which allows drivers to use their office applications through a 3G modem while behind the wheel.

Hands-free, the company is quick to point out.