For years, I’ve been watching how modern communications systems, meaning the Internet, will be incorporated into vehicles. The heart of the problem is that there has been an explosion of communication and entertainment capabilities but there is a limit on what drivers can safely manage. The motto has been, and should remain, “Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel.”
I witnessed a possible breakthrough in this logjam yesterday at the unveiling of Ford Motor’s EcoSport subcompact SUV. There are several interesting facts about the vehicle, which was designed for European streets. First, SUVs remain the hot spot in the American market and Ford is no exception. The EcoSport is joining the Explorer, Escape and Edge.
The second intriguing thing is that the EcoSport is manufactured in India. I never I thought I would see the day that a vehicle made in India would meet American safety requirements.
But the single most fascinating thing is that Ford has teamed up with Amazon to put the voice of Alexa at the driver’s fingertips, opening up 25,000 different functions to the driver’s voice. Voice may the answer to how to manage the complexity of the Internet in any vehicle. Here’s what the 8-inch touch screen and the dashboard look like. The system can accommodate as many as 10 personal devices:
Ford is not the only manufacturer exploring how to use Alexa, but this is the first time I have seen it in action. Concerns about these systems being hacked may be real, but the bigger message is that cars are merging with our individual phones and homes in a new type of ecosystem, to use a fancy term. With Alexa, a driver can turn on the home porch lights while he or she is still minutes away or turn on the air conditioner at home to cool things down. Essentially, we’re seeing a blending of the consumer electronics industry and the metal-banging auto industry, I first witnessed the glimmerings of this when then Ford Motor CEO Jacques Nasser stood on the stage at the Detroit Auto Show in 2000 with Yahoo CEO Jerry Yang to proclaim a new era of cooperation between the two industries.
Ford has built its own system, SYNC 3, on the basis of software from Blackberry. The first version of SYNC was widely panned because it was based on the much less intuitive Windows software of Microsoft. Alexa is bundled into the Ford system, just as if you had it in your kitchen. Other services bundled together include Domino’s (so you can order a pizza on the road and then pick it up), Waze, Accuweather and other features.
I spoke with Liz Halash, who is the connective vehicle and services supervisor for Ford. She has both undergraduate and master’s degrees in computer science. “It’s a fine balance of giving people what they want while keeping it simple,” she said.
I think it is noteworthy that Google’s Waymo and other West Coast high-tech firms argue that they will be the ones to design the cars of the future, but the fact remains that the legacy manufacturers have a better chance of figuring out how to integrate the latest features into packages that do not distract drivers. I continue to think that Wall Street is dramatically undervaluing Ford, and to some extent General Motors, because the future belongs to the legacy manufacturers, working with companies such as Amazon, to be sure. But the big metal-bending manufacturers are not going to be relegated to the dust heap of history.