LAS VEGAS – Need a billion-dollar corporate turnaround? There’s an app for that.
Hitching a ride with the fast-paced Internet and consumer electronics industry, Ford Motor Co. on Thursday unveiled new features for its SYNC in-car technology designed to turbocharge its financial turnaround and polish the Dearborn, Mich., company’s image to be the Apple Inc. of the car industry.
At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Ford chief executive Alan Mulally showed off how consumers can soon catch up on Twitter, listen to Internet radio, check movie times and get free turn-by-turn Web maps, using SYNC’s 8-inch color touch-screen in the dashboard or by voice commands in Ford’s upcoming lineup of cars this spring.
“These are the features that set us apart,” Mulally said in his keynote speech.
Sporting a homespun look in a red sweater vest, white Oxford shirt and khakis, Mulally boasted that his company had already sold a million vehicles equipped with previous versions of SYNC as of last May, seven months earlier than the goal he set last January when he delivered his first CES keynote speech.
Ford is one of many companies at CES that are showing off information and entertainment technologies for car drivers and passengers.
General Motors Corp. this week, for example, announced a new application that would let owners of its Chevrolet Volt remotely control a number of car settings, from unlocking the doors to starting up the car, from their iPhone, BlackBerry Storm or Motorola Droid smart phones. The Volt, a plug-in hybrid, is set to come out later this year. A similar technology is being implemented on Mercedes Benz vehicles.
Information and entertainment products for cars have been available for several years, but their proliferation is leading to increased fears about whether drivers can stay focused on the road while listening to tweets and requesting stock quotes.
Paul Green, a professor at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute who studies the effects of distractions for motorists, said automakers are making a “reasonable effort” to minimize the problem. It’s unclear how successful they are, though, because vehicles are becoming more and more complicated, adding to a driver’s workload.
Green said that since SYNC uses voice-activated commands, it should make it easier for drivers to keep their attention on the road.
“They’re providing more things for drivers to do, but they’re providing them in an easy way,” he said. “One hopes it’s a net gain.”
This year, Ford gave outside developers a chance to bring their mobile apps to SYNC, allowing drivers to, for example, use the car’s controls to summon Pandora Internet radio as the app itself sits on an iPhone or other smart phone. It’s also pairing up with companies such as AOL Inc.’s MapQuest and Google Inc. to bring street directions and other information to its cars. And it expanded the number of voice commands recognized from about 100 when SYNC was first introduced nearly two years ago to well over 1,000.
The company also introduced MyFord, which includes the ability for individual drivers to customize their own home screen or set the cabin temperature. The car would recognize the driver, either by their personal key fob or their voice, and automatically pull up those settings.
The technology is a key component to Ford’s efforts to speed up its rebound and regain market share, which had slipped from 25 percent in the early 1990s to 15.5 percent today.
SYNC so far appears to be helping Ford with its turnaround. Cars equipped with SYNC sell twice as fast as the same models without the technology, according to Derrick Kuzak, Ford’s group vice president for global product development.
Of those who bought a SYNC-enabled car, about a third said that the feature was important, if not critical, to their decision to buy Ford, while 77 percent reported that they would recommend the vehicle to a friend, Mulally said.
Ford’s financial health also has improved. It turned a profit in the third quarter, and its market share in the U.S. grew by over a percentage point in 2009. Ford shares, which traded as low as $1 early last year, on Thursday gained 29 cents, or 2.6 percent, to $11.66, the highest since March 14, 2005.