Ford to Open Palo Alto Research Lab this Summer


Car manufacturers are slowly but surely morphing into technology companies and it's not just upstart manufacturers like Tesla who are trying to piggyback on Silicon Valley's deep pool of engineering and academic talent. General Motors, for example, already has offices in Palo Alto and today, Ford announced that it has also chosen Palo Alto for its new Silicon Valley lab. The company already has research labs in Dearborn, MI; Aachen, Germany; Nanjing, China and Tel Aviv, Israel. The lab will be lead by TJ Giuli, a Ford research engineer and Stanford-alumni who has been working on the forefront of the company's tech efforts for the last few years. 

The company hopes that the new lab will "serve as a hub for independent technology projects and identification of new research investments and partners located along the West Coast." It also hopes to develop deeper partnerships with local tech firms and universities. Ford is, for example, already a member of Stanford's Automotive Research at Stanford (CARS) affiliate program.

Ford will hire Silicon Valley talent for its new offices, but also plans to rotate-in engineers from its other locations to work on new in-car technologies and ideas.

The company first announced its plans to open a Silicon Valley office earlier this year, but at that time, it hadn't chosen a location yet. According to the city of Palo Altos' economic development manager Thomas Fehrenbach, the city itself reached out to Ford when it heard about Ford's plans, though chances are that it was already pretty high on Ford's list of possible locations.


10:08 am

The Upgradable Car: Ford Sends Software Updates to 300,000 Drivers


Late last year, when Ford announced the second version of its MyFord Touch interface, the company also announced that it would allow all current owners of cars with this system to update to the new version. In the world of auto tech, where development cycles can often last years and major software updates are virtually unheard of, this announcement raised quite a few eyebrows. When Ford first made the announcement, though, it didn't provide us with a specific date for when the update would be available to current drivers. Here is the good news: if you currently own a car that uses the MyFord Touch interface, you will get a USB stick with the free update in the mail sometime this week.

If you don't want to wait for the mail, you can also download the update and copy it on a USB stick yourself. Update: we misread the update announcement. You can make an appointment with your dealer to install the update, but you can't download the update yourself.

For more about what the new software will offer drivers, also take a look at our preview of the upgrade from last year.

In addition to the update, Ford is also launching this new version, which includes major usability and speed enhancements, on its 2013 Taurus and Flex models this year. The company and Microsoft, which provides the underlying operating system, worked together closely to provide drivers with a better user experience compared to the first version, which was often criticized for its sluggishness and ability to confuse users. 

The upgrade itself should take somewhere between 45 and 60 minutes and is as easy as plugging the USB key into the car's Media Hub. The car will automatically recognize the update and start the process. 

For Ford, this is an important update. The previous version of Touch was widely criticized by drives and reviewers for being too complicated and distracting. At the same time, though, it's this kind of new technology that is driving quite a few purchase decisions. Indeed, according to Ford's own research, 56% of recent Ford buyers say that technology was an important part in their buying decision. 

10:04 am

OpenXC: Ford Launches an Open-Source Platform for In-Car Connectivity and Apps


Cars and the Internet are slowly getting closer, but it's still hard for developers to get their apps into cars without being invited by the automobile industry. Given the security and especially safety concerns involved here, things will likely remain this way for a while, but a new project from Ford aims to accelerate in-car app development. The company today announced that it is now shipping a beta version of its OpenXC hardware and software platform to a group of handpicked universities, including the University of Michigan, MIT and Stanford, as well as app developers like the Weather Underground in the U.S. and HCL Technologies in India.

OpenXC was developed in corporation with Bug Labs.

The Modular and Upgradable Car

Here is the general philosophy behind OpenXC:

What if the user-facing hardware and software was independent from any one vehicle, and could be purchased and installed by consumers as an aftermarket add-on? What if the infotainment hardware was more modular and user-upgradable, and perhaps most importantly, transferable from one vehicle to another?

If it becomes widely adopted, every car would feature an OpenXC connection that is linked to the dashboard interface and audio system. Then, you could just buy extra hardware modules or software for your cars and plug it into the OpenXC connections just like you plug a USB device into your computer. Your wireless provider, for example, could offer a 3G module and if you want to switch to LTE, you just swap the modules out.

The average car now has a lifespan of 13 years, says Ford. That means the technology your car uses today will be outdated quickly if you can't upgrade it. OpenXC would make it possible to keep up to date for far longer.

For Developers: OpenXC Brings Android and Arduino to Your Car

This new platform is currently based on Android and gives developers real-time access to a large number of a car's sensors, the GPS receiver and other data from the car's systems. Ford notes, however, that there is no reason why somebody couldn't port the libraries it uses to other operating systems as well. The reference hardware, which uses the popular Arduino platform, should cost under $150 (plus the cost of an Android tablet).

It's worth noting that this is currently only a limited release and that the actual source code is not yet available. Ford, however, promises that it will happily add more developers every day (you can sign up here) and that the source code will be available soon.

To ensure these new apps don't interfere with the basic functions of the car itself, the apps remain isolated from the vehicle control systems (think steering, brakes, ABS etc.).

When Ford and Bug Labs first announced their plans for OpenXC, the companies noted that they hope that this platform will allow developers to "quickly prototype ideas and test out affordable new connectivity concepts that could enhance Ford’s future products."

One of the apps Ford is demoing today was built by HCL and interfaces with the car's GPS to provide regular location updates selected personal contacts.

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11:16 am

Connect Your Car to NPR: Ford Brings Voice-Controlled NPR Streaming App to SYNC


Here is another nail in the coffin of traditional terrestrial drive-time radio: Ford and NPR just announced the launch of NPR's updated Android and iPhone apps with support for Ford's SYNC AppLink service that connects your phone to your car's built-in infotainment system. With this app, Ford drivers who own compatible vehicles will, for example, be able to get on-demand access to NPR's newscasts by simply using a voice command like "hourly news" to start the program.

Control NPR With Your Voice

Ford is deeply invested in making voice control a central feature of its in-car user experience (partly for safety reasons), so the NPR app, too, will make heavy use of the built-in voice recognition features that are part of SYNC. Some of the examples Ford notes are the ability to select programs like Car Talk or Tell Me More by just asking your car to play them. In addition, you can also get access to recent stories from NPR's many programs by asking for "stories" and then the topic you are interesting in (say "science").

You can also use the app on your phone to create your own custom playlist before you start driving, of course.

While Ford has launched a number of AppLink-compatible apps in recent months, this is the first dedicated news app for the service and NPR's first foray into the world of connected cars. As with other AppLink apps, you do bring your own wireless connection to the car. This is Ford's model for in-car connectivity in general. Other car makers have opted for partnerships with wireless carriers to bring the Internet to their cars.

Given how many people already stream music and radio programs over the Internet in their cars, we can only hope that others will follow suit (iHeartRadio seems like a natural partner).

More New SYNC Apps from TeleNav and Ford Itself

Ford today also announced two other apps that support AppLink, including one for TeleNav's newly announced personal navigator service and a new version of Ford's own SYNC Destinations App.

Ford's SYNC AppLink is available on a range of 2012 models, including the Fiesta, Mustang, Fusion and F150.

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5:00 pm

Ford Updates its MyFord Touch Interface: Easier to Use, Faster and Less Distracting


Ford today announced a major upgrade to its MyFord Touch user interface that allows drivers to control virtually all aspects of their cars infotainment system with the help of voice commands, a touchscreen and dedicated buttons on the dashboard. The earlier MyFord Touch system, which was available on a number of 2011 and 2012 model year cars, has a reputation for being overly complex and slow. The update the company announced today greatly simplifies the user experience and also offers a major performance boost, resulting in faster screen redraws and a more fluid user interface. Ford also enhanced compatibility with Bluetooth smartphones (which now offers iPad support as well), improved the voice recognition experience and upgraded the turn-by-turn navigation system.

The new system will make its debut on the 2013 Ford Escape, Flex and Taurus. Current owners will be happy to hear that Ford plans to send them a USB stick with the software upgrade by early next year. This upgrade will be free and installing it will be as easy as plugging the USB driver into the car and waiting for the install to finish.

I got a chance to test the new system out during a trip to Ford’s headquarter in Dearborn, MI last week (see disclosure below).


Driven to Distraction: MyFord Touch 1.0

With SYNC, Sync Applink and MyFord Touch, Ford was at the forefront of the auto industry to bring voice recognition, touch screens, apps and connectivity to its cars at a time when most of these features were only available in luxury cars. At the same time, though, while these new systems helped to drive sales, the company’s reputation has suffered somewhat over the last year or so as these advanced systems turned out to be somewhat too complex, distracting and cumbersome for many drivers.

Smarter User Interface

As Ford user interface design engineer Jennifer Brace told me last week, Ford conducted a number of user clinics with current MyFord Touch owners over the course of the last year and tried to address their main concerns with this update.

The new interface does away with most of the clutter that made the old one hard to use. While it keeps the same basic layout with four quadrants of the screen (Entertainment, Climate, Navigation and Phone), every single screen has been redesigned by Ford’s engineers to make using the system more intuitive. The whole system now features simpler graphics, larger fonts and just focuses on providing more glancable information to the driver without unnecessary distractions.

Other design upgrades include more obviously pressable buttons, a move towards a more standard icon set (think magnifying glasses for zooming in and out and a gear icon for changing your settings etc.), and more 3D landmarks in the maps app as well as easier to read street names.


Besides sprucing up the interface, Ford’s engineers also worked on making the whole experience faster while keeping the same hardware. Indeed, as Ford told me, the 2013 model year cars the updated system will make its debut on will actually feature the exact same hardware as the old models (partly in order to ensure compatibility for current owners). The speed updates – which are quite significant when you see the old and new software side-by-side – are solely based on optimizing the software.

The video blow explains the update and new features in more detail:

Disclosure: Ford provided this author with transportation to its Dearborn, MI headquarters, as well as lodging and meals.

5:01 am

Toyota and Ford to Jointly Develop In-Car Connectivity Standards


 This morning, Ford and Toyota announced that they have signed a memorandum of understanding that will allow the two companies to work together on building a new standard for telematics platform for their cars that will enable in-car communications systems and Internet-based services. The two companies plan to sign a formal agreement early next year.

Ford, of course, has made a name for itself in the technology industry by adding more and more technology to its cars in recent years, mostly based on its SYNC system. Toyota, too, recently introduced Entune. Just like SYNC, Entune connects cars to the Internet through existing cell networks.

Standardizing the Technology, Not the Look and Feel

Toyota specifically noted that these new systems will be able to link to home energy systems and allow drivers to save money by recharging plug-in hybrids and electric cars whenever their electricity is the cheapest. Ford also stressed that the collaboration will mostly focus on back-end infrastructure and standardizing enabling technologies, including standardizing Bluetooth systems, in-car WiFi systems and similar technologies. Both companies stressed that their respective systems would keep their own looks and feature sets.

It’s worth noting that Ford’s current SYNC system is based on Microsoft’s in-car software platform and that Toyota and Microsoft recently announced a similar partnership. Toyota also plans to use Microsoft’s Azure as its cloud computing platform for its next-generation telematics platform. Having a similar platform will likely help both companies to collaborate on these systems.

In addition to the collaboration in the telematics field, the two companies also announced that they would collaborate on developing new hybrid systems for small trucks and SUVs.

2:37 pm

As Car Makers Add More Technology to Their Vehicles, New Problems Appear


Our cars are quickly becoming sophisticated computers on wheels and new cars often feature technologies like speech recognition, lane departure warnings, adaptive cruise control and blind-zone alerts that would have looked like science fiction not too long ago. Now, however, the latest J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study shows that quite a few of these new technologies end up confusing users and have lead to a massive drop in the quality ratings for some manufactures. The clearest example for this is Ford, which has been instrumental in bringing many of these technologies to the mass market. In the J.D. Power ranking, the company dropped from fifth place in 2010 to 23rd this year, showing that this new technology clearly leaves some buyers unsatisfied.


9:11 pm

U.S. Transportation Secretary: “There’s Absolutely No Reason for Any Person to Download Their Facebook Into the Car”


Cars are becoming increasingly connected and there can be little doubt that this opens drivers up to all kinds of new distractions. Some new cars can now check your Facebook account and read updates out aloud. Others connect you to your personalized music stations on Pandora or let you browse through your locally stored music collection through one of the many little screens that now grace many cars instead of the traditional analog dials. U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, however, thinks that all of these electronics are just too distracting and, according to the Wall Street Journal, is pressuring car manufacturers to minimize “gadgetry in new cars.” Indeed, LaHood told the Wall Street Journal that “there’s absolutely no reason for any person to download their Facebook into the car. It’s not necessary.”

While it would be easy to brand LaHood as a Luddite who doesn’t want people to “download their Facebook,” there can be little doubt that the car manufacturers haven’t yet figured out a way to smoothly integrate all of these new bells and whistles into the regular driving experience. Ford’s SYNC, for example, only allows drivers to access certain functions through voice control while the car is moving. These systems can be frustrating, however, as even the best voice recognition is still prone to making errors – which will likely distract the driver even more.

Given the long development cycles in the car industry, it will take a bit before we get advanced Internet-connected in-car infotainment systems that feel as integrated into the driving experience as today’s basic car radios. It’s not about Facebook, though.

There is no reason why a status update from Facebook that’s automatically streamed to your car should be any more distracting than listening to a morning zoo radio program. The car industry, sadly, hasn’t quite figured out how to do this, yet.

3:42 pm

Why Your Next Car Will Have an IP Address


One trend that has become very clear at this year’s CES is that the Internet is slowly making its way into our cars. Of course, you can already browse the Net and play music from Pandora through your smartphone, but the next generation of cars – and especially electric cars – are making the Internet an integral part of the car’s feature set.

Toyota, Nissan, Ford, Chevy and most other major car manufacturers are introducing connected cars this year. These cars will all either feature fully integrated built-in Internet access through on-board wireless modules or, as is the case with Toyota’s Entune multimedia system, use a smartphone connection to enable this functionality.

Ford’s new plug-in Focus Electric, which it officially launched at CES today, for example, features a built-in wireless connection that connects the car to the cloud and allows owners to communicate with the car from their smartphones and through a mobile-optimized website. With SYNC, MyFordTouch and AppLink, Ford will allow owners of some of its cars to run apps like Pandora and control them through the car’s built-in entertainment system and control their features by voice.

Toyota_Entune mockup

While Ford was the first company to take this technology mainstream, a number of other manufacturers are now picking up on this trend as well. Toyota’s Entune will bring music from Pandora, Internet radio courtesy of IHeartRadio, restaurant reservations from OpenTable and search and maps from Microsoft’s Bing to some of its 2012 models.

Indeed, Microsoft is a player on a lot of fronts here. Ford’s SYNC, for example, is based on Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Automotive platform and Bing is not just coming to Toyota but also to Hyundai.

Third-party manufacturers are also getting into the game. Harman, for example, introduced a 4G wireless module for LTE networks that will allow drivers to bring the Internet to their older cars. This system will feature real-time traffic updates, games, streaming video and will give passengers access to the full Internet.

What is driving this trend?

First of all, the proliferation of smartphones has allowed us to become accustomed to having ubiquitous Internet access wherever we are. It doesn’t come as a surprise then that we expect the same from the most expensive piece of technology most of us own: our cars.

Harman's In-Car Internet System

Another factor that’s driving this trend is that – unless you are a real car enthusiast – the main differentiator between cars in the same category today is technology. Touchscreens, voice recognition, access to your Pandora stations and – on a more basic level – an easy and working system for pairing your phone with your car over Bluetooth can be powerful factors when consumers make their buying decisions.

For electric cars, having Internet access in some form is virtually a must. With their limited range (generally around 100 miles), knowing where the next charging station is can make our break your trip to the grocery store. This data is changing rapidly, however, as new stations come online almost daily, so the manufacturers need to have the ability to update these cars’ navigation databases remotely. Bringing the car in to the dealership once a month to update the GPS system isn’t exactly a practical solution.

In some ways, this is turning cars into the ultimate gadget (and is also a challenge when it comes to usability). Just look at the Focus Electric, for example, which (assuming I counted right) features 18 buttons on the steering wheel alone, has to small LCD screens right in front of the driver and a large one in the middle console.

Full Internet Access and Any App You Want in Your Car? Not Quite Happening Yet

For now, most manufacturers are not bringing the full Internet experience to the car yet and only allow a limited set of apps on their dashboards. There are good reasons for that. The car industry is highly focused on safety and a malfunctioning app that takes over your audio system, for example, and suddenly overrides your volume settings due to a software bug, plays AC/DC at full volume and startles you to the point where you have an accident is a major liability and could cost a company like GM millions.

So for now, your smartphone is your best bet for getting online in your car (while you are in the passenger seat, of course), but your next car itself could be transmitting maintenance data over the Internet while you’re driving down the highway, allowing you to open and close your doors with the help of a smartphone app (Ford and GM are introducing this for their electric cars) and sending you a text message when its battery is running low or when it notices that you forgot to plug it in over night.

FocusElectric dashboard screens

Dashboard of the Focus Electric

11:01 am

Your Car on Your Phone: Ford Connects the Focus Electric to the Cloud


With SYNC, Ford was one of the first car manufacturers to connect its cars to the Internet and brought relatively high-end technologies like voice recognition and in-car WiFi to the mass market. Now, the Michigan-based company is taking this a step further with the introduction of the MyFord Mobile app for the battery-powered plug-in Focus Electric.

Ford didn’t specify its partners yet, but this technology will be powered by an on-board wireless module that will use standard cellular technology. The data from the car will be stored on a secure server in the cloud.

The MyFord Mobile apps will be available for BlackBerry, Android and iPhone, as well as in the form of a mobile web app for HTML5-capable devices and even WAP-enabled feature phones. With this app, Focus Electric owners in the U.S. will be able to check on the status of their car from anywhere in the world and monitor and control vehicle charge levels, plan their trips and pre-heat or cool their cars before they even leave their house. The app will also allow Focus Electric owners to open and close their cars’ doors remotely. Other features include locating the car with the help of the vehicle’s built-in GPS system and controlling the car’s charging state remotely.

Ford even added some game mechanics to the app. You can win achievements for “for driving and ownership milestones that can then be posted to your Facebook or Twitter account.”

Maps from MapQuest

Ford partnered with MapQuest to provide owners with the ability to find nearby charging stations – a feature that’s a must for any electric car and which also comes standard on the electric cars from Ford’s competitors like the Nissan Leaf and Chevy Volt.

As the locations and availability of local charging stations continues to change and evolve – and given that you can’t just carry a spare battery with you if you run out of juice – it’s virtually a must for this first generation of mainstream electric cars to offer this as a standard feature.

Smarter Charging Courtesy of Microsoft

Microsoft is providing Ford with the technology behind the car’s “value charging” feature, which allows owners to program their cars to charge during off-peak hours when their utility prizes are the lowest.

The App as a Key Component in Vehicle Ownership

According to Ford, this app will be a “key component in the electric vehicle ownership experience” and Focus Electric owners will find that a lot of the apps’ features are also available inside the car courtesy of a redesigned MyFord Touch interface. The mobile app will also feature the company’s SYNC Traffic, Directions and Information Service (TDI) which made its debut as a standalone iPhone app in late December.

9:01 pm