Ford learning to 'think like an electronics company,' Mulally tells CES crowd

Ford is planning major upgrades to its Microsoft-made Sync in-car electronics system, CEO Alan Mulally announced in a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show.

Las Vegas — Imagine checking your Facebook account on your dashboard. It may soon happen, despite a rising tide of legislation banning the use of electronic gadgets while at the wheel, according to Ford.

Ford chief executive officer Alan Mulally used a speech at the Consumer Electronics Show on Thursday to announce a host of new in-car electronics and features including the potential of integrating third-party software and services — such as a website like Facebook — into the car.

Ford is planning major upgrades to its Microsoft-made Sync in-car electronics system —  an option currently priced at $395 and available on select models — over the next year. The system, which the two companies first rolled out in 2007 to play music from an MP3 player and make calls using Bluetooth-enabled cellphones, also monitors the vehicle’s "health" and reports malfunctions to the driver.

Sync will also now be able to use a cellphone's data plan to bring traffic, sports scores and stock quotes into the car. And the system will have the capability to accept voice commands to plot driving routes, using the latest traffic information to pick the best directions.

The new version of Sync will be an option for almost all of the 2010 Ford, Mercury and Lincoln models.  The program will be ready on Ford trucks this spring. Drivers who already have Sync-enabled cars will have access to the upgrades for free.

Sync-equipped car owners will also be able to go to the "Sync My Ride" website through a desktop or laptop computer and download new third-party-designed software applications, similar to the trend in cellphones started by Apple’s iPhone. The applications will be copied onto a USB memory card, then plugged into the car.

The system’s openness will open possibilities "limited only by people’s imaginations," Mulally said.

The company is also rolling out "Ford Work Solutions" for U.S. trucks in the spring, which will feature a dashboard-mounted computer with a 3G cellular internet connection through Sprint Nextel. The system will let drivers effectively transform their trucks into mobile offices, Ford said.

The features are all part of automaker's continued move to creating connected vehicles, Mulally said.

"We are a car company but we are learning how to think like an electronics company."

CEA calls for continued innovation

Mulally was introduced by Gary Shapiro, the president of the Consumer Electronics Association, the industry lobby group that organizes CES. Shapiro, however, indirectly criticized Mulally and his fellow automakers earlier in the day during his own speech.

Shapiro opened the first official day of CES by urging president-elect Barack Obama to refrain from regulating the consumer electronics industry, and to allow market forces to continue to govern the business.

He criticized both the outgoing and incoming administrations for "spending our children’s money" by bailing out companies that had made bad business decisions — an indirect reference to the auto and bank industries.

"We ask Washington to do no harm to innovative companies," he said

Shapiro predicted the industry would contract slightly this year, with revenue falling 0.6 per cent, but would rebound in 2010.

He also echoed comments made by Microsoft and Sony CEOs Steve Ballmer and Sir Howard Stringer during their respective speeches by calling on technology companies to continue innovating. Creating "must-have" products will be the best way to get consumers spending again, which will help revive the economy, he said.

"Our economy may be shaken but it will not fail," Shapiro said. "Innovation is the best medicine to cure economic stagnation."