By Keith Naughton
(Bloomberg) — Ford Motor Co. (F) plans to bring social networking, Web browsing and iPod-style thumb controls into 80 percent of its models by 2015 as automakers woo consumers with communications features.
A touch-command system will be available this year in the Lincoln MKX, Ford Edge and Ford Focus models, the company said. The My Ford Touch system to be unveiled at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas features thumb-wheel controls on the steering wheel, as well as an 8-inch touch screen in the dashboard, for audio, navigation and climate-control functions.
Ford is enhancing its three-year-old Sync communications offering as Kia Motors Corp. said this week that it's introducing a similar system this year in its Sorento model. The Ford and Kia systems are both based on Microsoft Corp.(MSFT)'s in-car voice-activated communications technology.
"It is a reason now to buy a Ford," Chief Executive Officer Alan Mulally said in an interview. "It's a new way of working and talking with your car."
John Wolkonowicz, an analyst at IHS Global Insight of Lexington, Massachusetts, said that "Sync is easy to sell to a person under 35. Sync is about entertainment and connectivity, which is very Gen Y."
Ford fell 2 cents to $11.35 at 9:50 a.m. in New York Stock Exchange composite trading. Yesterday's closing price of $11.37 was the highest since June 16, 2005.
Derrick Kuzak, Ford's product development chief, told reporters on Jan. 4 that "we are intent on maintaining leadership in this kind of connectivity. We saw people becoming addicted to connectivity and we saw increased use of these devices inside the car and we connected the dots."
Sync was critical to the purchase of a Ford model for 32 percent of buyers last year, he said. The system, a $395 option on some models, is on 70 percent of the vehicles Ford sells. My Ford Touch will be standard on high-end cars and trucks, while a basic My Ford system with a smaller, non-touch screen will be on base models, said Alan Hall, a company spokesman.
Ford said it's augmenting Sync with the ability to convert incoming texts into spoken words. It will offer drivers 15 standard text responses that can be sent with a voice command. Ford is still researching the ability to convert speech to a text message, said Jim Buczkowski, its director of electronics.
The automaker also is incorporating the Twitter social network's Open Beak application into Sync and is adding Pandora and Stitcher Internet radio and MapQuest.com's online mapping information. Ford developed its own Web browser, which can be operated only while the car is parked, Kuzak said.
To increase applications, the Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker is letting outside software developers design new functions for Sync.
Ford, which has endorsed legislation to outlaw texting while driving, said its research indicates that hands-free communication doesn't distract drivers.
"Most of the industry studies show that just driving and just talking is the same," Kuzak said. "As long as the customer's eyes are on the road, they are not compromised."
Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood testified Oct. 29 that he found Ford's Sync system distracting when he tested it on a Taurus sedan during a visit to Dearborn.
"As much as I liked driving the Taurus and as much as I liked the Sync system where you put your BlackBerry in and it syncs all your numbers, it's a distraction," LaHood told a House highways subcommittee at a hearing on distracted driving.
To contact the reporter on this story: Keith Naughton in Southfield, Michigan, at Knaughton3@bloomberg.net
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