Ford Quickens Pace In Infotainment, Safety

By Dale Buss June 22, 2011

Sync Applink.jpg

Ford is attempting to build on its early lead in on-board connectivity and also add to its safety chops as it continues to navigate the increasingly strategic and high-profile world of automotive infotainment. Innovations such as Sync have gained Ford some leadership in this area in the eyes of American consumers, and this week Ford has announced incremental advances, such as expansion of its Sync voice-control software to more vehicles and greater visibility of fonts that it uses in controls and touch screens in its vehicles.

“Being ‘green’ and ‘smart’ are Ford’s most important differentiators in the marketplace,” Mark Fields, Ford’s president of the Americas, told journalists assembled at the company’s design center in Dearborn, Mich., for a safety and technology show-and-tell this week. Consumer appreciation of the “smart pillar” of Ford’s long-term positioning – which also includes “safe” and “quality” values as well as “green” – rose 62 percent by the end of the first quarter compared with 2008 when the concepts were embodied formally, Fields said, without describing how the increase was measured. Doug VanDagens, director of Ford Connected Services Solutions, asserted that when it comes to infotainment, the company is “thinking like and innovating at the pace of a consumer-electronics company.”

Specifically, Ford said that it plans to make Sync AppLink available on an additional nine vehicles for 2012 beyond the previously announced 2012 Ford Mustang, expanding customer access to AppLink’s “intuitive” voice control and to smart-phone apps on the go. Ford plans to add more than 100 jobs over the next four years in this expanding area and announced that 2,500 independent developers have signaled their interest in creating more apps for Ford by signing onto a web site. The company also disclosed a new partnership with Nuance Communications, based in Burlington, Mass., which develops voice-control technologies.

Working Out Bugs
As competitors scurry to catch up to Ford in infotainment, executives want to keep their feet on the gas. More than 84 percent of Ford Fusions now are sold equipped with Sync as well as more than 76 percent of F-150s. A total of three million Ford-built vehicles now include Sync, and Fields said that more than 50 percent of customers say that the system was a key factor in their purchase considerations. About 55 percent of smart-phone users prefer voice commands over other types of interfaces in the car, VanDagens said, and more than 25 percent admit to using apps in the vehicle. Small wonder: Smart-phone owners spend an average of 7.4 hours a week in their vehicles, he said.

MyFord Touch screen grab 2011.jpgFord’s reputation in the infotainment area slipped recently after Consumer Reports magazine identified difficulties in operating both Sync and MyFord Touch, a complementary infotainment platform. But Fields said that Ford is “fixing issues” with MyFord Touch, not only with the software per se but also in helping customers understand the systems. “Early this year, dealers began offering personalized sessions just like at the Apple store, and even going to customers’ homes” to conduct the training, Fields said. Ford also has added an owner-supported web site for Sync. Partly as a result, 73 percent of customers surveyed by Ford indicated satisfaction with the first generation of MyFord Touch versus 65 percent who had given the thumb’s up to the first generation of Sync a few years ago, he said.

Because vehicles now have become so digitally integrated internally as well as with the outside world, safety improvements – as well as entertainment and communication functions in the vehicle – increasingly run through computer interfaces. The most crucial frontier in that regard is how to help drivers safely use smart-phone apps in the car that they’re simply insisting they want to use. Sue Cischke, Ford’s vice president of environmental and safety engineering, said that the most important determinant of safety is for drivers to keep their eyes on the road and both hands on the steering wheel. This remains the case, she insisted, even in the wake of conflicting research that suggests distressing cell-phone conversations, for example, can significantly promote the possibility of an accident even if the driver is watching the road and has both hands in place.

Determinants of Distraction
“With increasing cell-phone use there has not been in increase in crashes,” Cischke said. “The brain is able to handle more [than assumed]. The biggest risk for distracted driving is looking away, not just cell-phone use.” She continued: “It’s not just cognitive overload. The brain can handle a lot. Manual distraction is far, far more” dangerous.

Still, Cischke explained, Ford is researching more ways for the vehicle to automatically suggest accident-avoidance action-avoidance actions by the driver and maybe even curb them. “We’re looking at disrupting communications, for instance, when you’re coming around a curve,” she said. And Sync already offers a “Do Not Disturb” feature that drivers can activat if they don’t want incoming cell-phone calls to interrupt their driving.

Ford also continues to press research in “vehicle-to-vehicle” and “vehicle-to-infrastructure” communications that would use digital and wireless technologies to enable vehicles approaching intersections, or the intersection controls themselves, to warn all approaching traffic in fractions of a second of accidents or potentially dicey traffic situations ahead. Not only would such systems boost safety, but also they could save fuel by helping drivers use real-time information about the lay of the land ahead to avoid traffic backups. A handful of automakers are working on such systems, but Cischke noted that one obstacle to their use is the need for standardized technology. Even a broad test of such systems also would require government involvement and investment at a time when Americans are frowning on new opportunities for government spending.

Safety Steps
Digitalization has created other opportunities for distracting and confusing drivers besides smart phones, and Ford also announced that it is addressing one of those. Ford said that it would increase fonts by up to 40 percent next year on touch screens and other vehicle controls, largely in response to its own new internal research showing how different fonts would help older drivers more effectively perceive information and instructions on displays. The fonts will be wider and bolder, beginning with Ford Edge and Ford Explorer models that are among Ford’s the most popular with aging baby boomers.

Ford also announced that it is expanding availability of rear inflatable seat belts by offering them initially on Ford Flex and on two Lincoln vehicles beginning next summer. The industry-first belts are designed to reduce head and neck injuries for rear-seat passengers, who tend to be children and older people. The system debuted on the 2011 Ford Explorer, and about 40 percent of buyers of the SUV are parents ordering the rear inflatable belts. The belts “spread the forces five times better against the body than regular seat belts do,” Cischke explained. And she said that because they’re made of a “web weave,” they’re more comfortable than regular seat belts, which “will encourage kids to wear them.”

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steve_ says: 10:47 AM, 06.23.11

Ford needs to work harder on the bugs - they're out of sync with their customers. Problems learning the new audio, entertainment and navigation systems caused Ford to drop from 5th to 23rd in the latest JD Power new-car quality survey.

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