Ford triumphs with Touch, Sync; brings connectivity to fourth screen -- your dashboard

CES 2010: Ford's new Touch and Sync in-car communications systems open up the automobile to the power of the Internet. Your dashboard will never be the same.

LAS VEGAS -- What's got an operating system, Bluetooth and Wi-Fi connectivity, USB and SD card ports, two LCD touchscreens, touch-sensitive buttons, MapQuest turn-by-turn directions, support for Pandora and Twitter, app stores, an SDK and a direct feed into the cloud?

No, it's not the latest smartbook. It's the next-generation of Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles, and they're coming to show you what it's like to tether a V6 engine to your laptop or phone.

Ford dropped a major, industry-disrupting bomb on Thursday with the announcement of the MyFord Touch in-car communications system, which completely revamps your car's dashboard by replacing the familiar speedometer, gas, battery and mileage dials with an 8-inch interactive display.

Paired with the company's previously-announced Sync device-to-car communications system, Touch offers a GUI, TUI (T for "touch") and VUI (V for "voice") to turn your vehicle into an Internet-connected smart car.

The new system is so powerful that CEA president Gary Shapiro couldn't help but call Ford CEO Alan Mulally the leader of "a technology company."

TOUCH, SYNC AND GO

Ford's new communications systems rely on voice and touch commands to ensure that the driver's eyes stay on the road and hands on the steering wheel.

Five-way directional controls on the steering wheel control the graphical dashboard interface, which is dynamic in what information you want to display.

The Touch system also moves into the space where your car radio normally resides, replacing it with a color LCD screen that serves several functions divided into four color-coded categories: Phone, Navigation, Entertainment and Climate.

What that means is that you can access MapQuest maps, in-car GPS navigation and turn-by turn directions in one quadrant; mobile phone and SMS text messaging in another quadrant, weather, news and stock quotes in a third quadrant; and local music, Internet radio, movie times and Internet browsing in the fourth, all controlled by touchscreen or -- when the cars is at speed -- voice commands.

Better still, the system gets better over time by "learning" and adapting to your voice.

Bye bye, Bluetooth headset.

That's not all. Combined with Sync, which talks to your mobile phone and other devices, Ford can leverage that local ecosystem -- everything inside your vehicle -- with the greater, Internet-powered ecosystem outside of it. Along with the maps and Internet radio and GPS the car can access, it can also sync preferences (such as whether you want to follow a certain sports team, or whether you "favorite" a song that's playing in Pandora) to the cloud, thanks to the Ford Service Delivery Network.

Example 1: You can "tag" an HD radio song you hear playing and the car will send that information directly to your iPod so you can then purchase the track.

Example 2: With MapQuest, you can send a map you look up on your computer directly to your vehicle -- so you don't have to print directions.

Example 3: The car can read text messages (or Twitter tweets) received in real-time and allow you to respond via text or, in the case of an SMS, actually just call that person back, entirely hands-free.

Example 4: You can buy movie tickets or make dinner reservations on the way home from work using only voice commands.

Example 5: Now that your speedometer and gas gauges are intelligent, they can actually coach you to be a more fuel-efficiend driver.

To boot, the luxury Lincoln brand gets exclusive details that the Ford and Mercury systems do not. For example, the entire center console is touch-sensitive -- no more mechanical buttons -- meaning you can adjust the fan speed by sliding your finger along a touch sensitive slider.

Even better, the car knows you: as you open the door, the system welcomes you by name. And the color of the ambient cup holder and foot well lights are adjustable from central Touch display.

"Who would imagine that five years ago, regular people could afford a car with Internet access?" said Jason Johnson, Ford's user interface design engineer for Sync.

That's not all, either. By leveraging the power of the smart, connected, Internet-ready vehicle, Ford can explore ways to create a smart highway ecosystem.

One example given during the keynote: If several cars driving on a road turn on their windshield wipers or lights, Ford could use that data to warn others within a few miles' radius to do the same in anticipation of inclement weather.

"What the mouse did for the PC, we need to come up with for [the car]" said Jim Buczkowski, Ford director of Global Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering. "We need to come up with a mouse."

A MAJOR DISRUPTION

It's hard to convey just how groundbreaking and disrupting this move is. With Touch, Ford is showing electronics behemoths like Sony and Samsung that they, too, can create a computing environment that consumers will buy into.

And with Sync -- which is built in partnership with Microsoft -- Ford is opening up millions of possible revenue streams, thanks to the wealth of services that the company can offer to the driver/consumer with Internet connectivity.

Leading manufacturers of the big 3 screens (computer, phone, TV) ought to take note: Ford and Microsoft are creating a fourth one right in our driveway.

Ford CEO Mulally stressed during his keynote speech here at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, noting the company's "four principles" -- quality, safety, fuel efficiency and "smart" technologies -- and how Touch and Sync work to accomplish the last two.

"These are the features that set us apart -- our signature brand technologies," Mulally said, adding that the features were "strategically important" and help to differentiate the company's offerings from competition.

Some of these other features include:

  • Active park assist -- an intuitive system that accommodates for driver assumptions
  • Radar-based blind spot information system, including cross traffic alerts
  • Easyfuel capless fuel filler -- racing inspired tech
  • EcoBoost, to increase the efficiency of traditional internal combustion engines (parallel to hybrid development)

Announcing a new Ford Taurus that's equipped with all of these technologies, Mulally said it was "challenging" and "fun" to "move at Silicon Valley speed."

With more than 1 million Sync-equipped vehicles on the road already, Ford has set an aggressive timeline for rolling the new Touch system out to its new vehicles: 80 percent of Ford's new vehicles will have the system within five years, and the first vehicles to get it include the new Ford Taurus, the Lincoln MKX crossover, the 2011 Ford Edge and 2012 Ford Focus.

The company has rolled out a Developer Toolkit for its "driver-connected technology," and it is smartly designing the system to leverage existing mobile app stores instead of making a new one.

The idea? More apps, more quickly, more affordably, with no additional fees.

Ford also worked with Nuance to make voice commands more conversational and IDEO (of Apple mouse fame) to make more intuitive multi-modal input and interfaces.

Ford outlined five guidelines for its approach:

  1. 5-way controller
  2. LCD screens
  3. Color conveys functionality
  4. Logically organized information in repeatable way
  5. Relevant information

The company's so bullish on the approach that it made reference to the hands-free, heads-up displays used by Tom Cruise's character in Minority Report and Robert Downey, Jr.'s character in Iron Man.

THE STORY BEHIND THE SCENES: MICROSOFT

If Ford's got the financial leverage to roll such an ecosystem out worldwide, Microsoft's got the breadth to effectively engineer a new computing ecosystem that most folks can't help but use.

But Microsoft's deal isn't exclusive with Ford, and the company just announced a deal with Kia (owned by Hyundai) for a similar in-car system built on the same underlying technology.

While Kia's system is expected to be much simpler than Ford's at the outset, the announcement demonstrates that Ford has first-mover advantage when it comes to implementing the technology -- and Microsoft stands to benefit greatly if wider adoption occurs.

(So do all those content partners. The car's new, more robust, Internet-connected ecosystem means there are virtually limitless avenues to make money on services.)

THE TOYBOX TAKE

With Sync and Touch and Kia's Uvo system and others like it, auto makers are quickly becoming tech companies.

It's not just about Ford, either. The car's dashboard has truly become the "fourth screen" for which to develop -- as robust as any netbook or smartphone -- and the companies that can successfully break into that environment stand to gain a significant advantage. The development benefits the driver greatly, but also benefits all the companies that can leverage this new platform -- the car -- to more roundly offer services already available on computers and phones and partially available on televisions.

Computing, somehow, has become more ubiquitous than ever. Only this time, it's at 65 miles per hour.