Ford's vision for the connected car
29th Jun 2012 | 09:00
Turning your car into an ultra smart smartphone accessory and keeping you safe
A few years ago, car makers thought they were going to be phone manufacturers as well. "You were going to have your home number, your office number and a phone number for the car too," Ford's in-house futurist Sheryl Connelly remembers. That wasn't practical.
Not only are car makers not mobile phone experts, but a built-in phone would be out of date long before the car itself - imagine a new car coming with MySpace integration. "The average car on the road is 10 or 11 years old," Connelly points out. "In that time you'll own something like five or seven different phones and you'll want all of them to work with your car."
That means Ford has to worry about your car - which CEO Alan Mulally has called the largest and most expensive mobile phone accessory you'll ever buy - becoming obsolete.
The connected car means a few different things to Ford, Connelly told TechRadar. The first is keeping you in the loop while you're in the car. That's something drivers are demanding, she says.
"We're responding to the marketplace. Consumers are saying 'I need constant connectivity'; they're bringing devices into the vehicle already, so we're finding ways to do that safely." The problem is that drivers are often bored; the average car speed worldwide is only 20mph, people commute for hours every week - and companies are demanding that employees be productive while they're travelling.
Ford's solution is Ford SYNC, which is already in 4 million cars, is an option on new cars and might soon be offered as a system you can add to your current car.
Ford SYNC has built-in features called My Ford Touch, including GPS navigation with the touchscreen, and voice control with a 10,000 word vocabulary for playing music or sending texts from a phone connected by Bluetooth.
Recognising that it isn't going to come up with all the apps you want, Ford's AppLink enables smartphone apps to work with SYNC. Put Pandora or TuneIn Radio on your phone, take it into the car and you can control the app with the SYNC voice control or the games console-inspired five-way controller on the steering wheel.
The My Ford Touch interface puts two screens behind the steering wheel for information the driver needs all the time and one in the centre console to use when you're parked, or for the passenger.
Navigation and local info
If you use TeleNav Scout for GPS navigation you can look up places to go on your phone and send them to the car's navigation system to get a route. Apps can work together, so TuneIn could find you radio stations for areas on your route so you can hear local news.
Ford's free Destinations app will use Yelp for finding businesses and the excellent INRIX service to predict what traffic will be like later in the day, and it adds business names to the voice recognition so you can ask your car questions such as 'what's traffic like to Heathrow airport" and have it tell you how long it will take to get there, which road it will suggest and how bad the traffic is.
SYNC will ask if you need directions, but this is really useful for routes you drive regularly; you already know the way, and the alternatives - you just want to know which one to take today. Using the car's GPS saves your phone battery, too.
Ford has ideas for other useful services, such as having your car look up what the pollen level is like if you have hayfever, or monitoring your heart rate.
And if you get one of Ford's new electric cars (the all-electric Focus reaches the UK at the end of 2012, and is already available in the US), you can see how much charge it has from your phone and set it to start charging in the middle of the night when power demand is lower, rather than as soon as you plug it in.
Once you have a connected platform in the car, there are other things you can use it for, Connelly pointed out. "Why should you have to give every new car you drive all your settings? It's easy to use technology to fix this. 'This is Mary; she likes this much arm rest, this temperature, this radio station'.
"We already have this with smart keys [if you share a car]. Because of this key, the car knows which driver it is and it can adjust the seat and the mirrors and give you your customised experience in the car - you can change the length of the arm rest, the height and other settings."
Further away is connecting one car to another using Wi-Fi, and to sensors along the roads you drive along. That's not just useful for self-driving cars; it's for making things safer.
"We already have sensors to warn you whether it's safe to change lanes and make it safer to back out of a parking space," Connelly says. "We can enhance your response time because sensors respond faster than the human eye."
Doing that with radar and cameras is pricey. Putting GPS and Wi-Fi in each car is far cheaper enables you to get information from other cars about traffic ahead, or know when there's someone coming around a blind corner or running the traffic light ahead. That way your car can warn you to change route or brake automatically to avoid an accident.
We tried that out on Ford's test track and the car slowed itself down long before we saw the van veering towards us.
Wi-Fi range doesn't limit this. "We can use street lights to pass on information such as 'there's an accident five miles ahead, you should get off this road now'," Connolly suggests.
The problem isn't getting the information into the car, but setting up the infrastructure and partnerships to get the scale you need to make this work.
"You need city planners to want to build the technology in. And the sensors have to be brand agnostic; it's not whether this is a Ford or a BMW or a pedestrian, but just 'there's something in your blind spot."
And of course it has to be reliable. "A lot of information is still extremely difficult to get right," Connelly admits. So while she says Ford will have car-to-car communication in "the near future", it will be more than five years before you get a warning from a car around the corner.