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Ford hopes to use Wi-Fi to prevent T-bone collisions and other common types of accidents by in-vehicle warnings of hazards the driver can't see.  (Source: Nagle Web)

Ford also hopes that its App Link API will help save users from the distraction of using smart phone apps while driving.  (Source: AP Photo)

MyFord Touch appeared greatly improved from when we last saw it.  (Source: Overall)
Company unveiled a number of safety initiatives at a special press conference

At a special press event at Ford Motor Company's (F) Research and Innovation Center, the company presented a variety of new technologies, ranging from infotainment to "green" transportation.  However, the real star of the show -- and its focus -- was Ford's ambitious safety agenda.

I. Ad-Hoc Network to Protect Drivers

Ford is working with a variety of other automakers [1][2] to try to push for mass adoption of wireless communications between vehicles.

If the company has its way, it will work with local, state, and federal governments to select a city for a pilot project.  That city would have Wi-Fi communications devices added to traffic signals and could offer drivers of older vehicles kits to retrofit their vehicle to properly "talk" to its fellow autos.  Additionally, all new vehicles sold in the area would come with the devices built in.

Under the plan the cars would communicate with each other over an ad-hoc peer-to-peer network of sorts, using the IEEE 802.11p standard, the SAE J2375 standard, and the SAE J2945 standard.

By "talking" to each other vehicles could give drivers warnings, akin to today's blind-spot detection warnings.  Ford engineer Mark Shulman showed off the system in a test vehicle.

The car gave warnings for a variety of dangerous scenarios that drivers today have little protection against.

In the first scenario a car two vehicles in front of the driver slams on their brakes.  This can be hard to see as the driver in front of you is blocking your view.  When that driver fails to stop, you can end up the victim of a pile-up crash.  Using the Wi-Fi, the system set off a blaring noise and a flashing red strip below the front windshield when the sudden braking  was detected.

In the second scenario you're following a vehicle who sees a vehicle stopped on the side of the road.  You can't see the stopped vehicle, and the car in front of you plans to quickly veer off at the last minute, leaving you barreling directly towards the stopped vehicle.  In the Wi-Fi equipped vehicle this scenario yet again blared a warning as the vehicle could "see" the stopped car, right through the car in front of it.

A third scenario was discussed in which a car is speeding forward in the lane next you, just as you decide to change lanes.  Normal blind spot detection won't help you here, as the car isn't next to you -- yet.  But the Wi-Fi system is supposed to warning you just in time not to switch lanes.  Unfortunately this scenario suffered from a technical glitch, so were unable to see it in action.

A fourth scenario, though, went off without a glitch.  In this scenario the driver approaches an intersection where they have a green light.  Normally trees and other visual obstacles might obstruct the driver's view of the cross street.  A person barreling through the cross street and violating the traffic signal could crash into you, T-boning your car.  

With Ford's system your car senses that another car is approaching the intersection where it has the red light.  By checking the car's speed, your car determines that the other vehicle is going to be unable to stop and will run the light.  As a result the warning blares.

Mr. Shulman described the new system as "like a vigilant passenger", who was offering you a second set of eyes on the road.

He said that the system was very inexpensive as all it requires is a GPS unit and a WiFi routing chip.

II. Virtual Child Dummy

At the conference Ford also gave additional details regarding its announcement that it had become reportedly the first automaker to develop a fully digital child crash test dummy.

The work began in Sept. 2010 at Tianjin University in China.  Thus far the spatial model has been formed and fully actuated.  The only remaining step will be to perform materials testing on child cadavers, doing stuff like compressing organs.  While compressing a cadavers' livers may sound grisly, bear in mind that these tests are in the name of science and saving lives.

Steve Rouhana told DailyTech that the model follows pioneering work on an adult model done between 1997 and 2003 by a graduate of Wayne State University in Detroit, Mich.  He says that adult model is virtually as accurate as a physical crash test dummy in examining impacts, although it can't be used for government crash test compliance testing -- yet.

III. App Link -- A Solution for Smartphone Addiction?

According to Ford, people love to use their smartphones in the car -- perhaps a little too much.  The company says that its research indicates that 4 in 5 smart phone owners use their devices in vehicle.  In fact it found that the average smart phone owner uses their device in-vehicle 7.4 hours a week.  And 25 percent outright admit to using apps while driving.

That's pretty bad considering consider that Ford VP Susan Cischke says that 81 percent of crash result due to manual distractions.

To that end Ford is looking to expand its App Link service, which is currently offered with its SYNC infotainment system on the Ford Fiesta.  Ford boasts that 2,500 developers are now actively using its App Link application programming interface (API) and software development kit (SDK). 

Ford says that it will expand App Link to 10 more of its vehicles within the next year.  It also announced that one of the key developers will be Pandora, who will be working Ford to offer App Link-driven internet radio.

The company has already received strong feedback from customers.  According to its research, 64 percent said that they would feel less distracted if their smart phone apps were integrated into the car's entertainment system and 55 percent said they would prefer to use voice commands.

The integration will come at no additional charge from SYNC's base options fee of $395 USD on new vehicles.

Ford also showed off some more additions to its SYNC arsenal -- including a 911-type emergency assistance project aimed at the European market.  Dubbed "112 assist" after Europe's emergency routing system, the car will be able to speak to emergency dispatchers in the native language of the region, which it detects using GPS.  For example, in Britain it will speak English, but if you take the rail across the Chunnel to France your system will switch over to speaking French.

The company is also working with a medical device manufacturer to test a "stress monitoring" seat, which use a series of contactless heart rate monitors, similar to those found in hospital beds.  The seat reportedly would monitor the user's stress level and -- with permission -- take certain steps to make the ride easier for them.  For example it might block incoming calls if the driver was stressed, sending them straight to voicemail.  Or it might do pre-braking or other crash avoidance/mitigation measures, in case the driver looses focus.

While we commend Ford on these efforts, we do find it a little odd that Ms. Cischke admits that manual distractions particularly ones that require you to "look down" are a massive danger, yet the company allows drivers to interact with the MyFord Touch's (MFT) screen while driving (which inherently compromises a manual distraction, involving looking down).

Ms. Cischke defended this decision, stating that Ford follows voluntary industry standards relating to "glance time" with MFT.  We can understand this, but it still seems like it would be a better idea to cut out the touch interaction all together and exclusively allow interaction via voice, and perhaps the steering wheel controls and LCD panels in the gauges cluster (which seem slightly less distracting as you don't have to look as far).

IV. MyFord Touch ... Shaping Up Nicely

Speaking of MyFord Touch, we gave it a bit of a tough time for its voice recognition difficulties during our stint in the 2012 Ford Focus.  However, our testing of demos on-site showed that the current build of the system has shown some marked improvement.

Most notably, it now recognizes some of the "special" commands like "I'm hungry," which were noticeably non-working both at our demo at CES 2011 and in our test vehicle.

Further, the system appeared to have much less slowdown.  SYNC team engineers tell us that they're also working to make the system more responsive to short names in the phonebook (such as "Bob", "Joe", or "Mom").  They also say that they are aware of the reboot issue and that recent builds are more stable.

Mark Fields, Ford's President of the Americas, stated, "Early on customers reported some issues with MyFord Touch.  We've listened and we've been fixing them."

Ford officials said that the company has been seeing success with its classes to educate customers on how to use the systems.  It also points to a new website that offers users train resources and feedback.

The company claims it currently has a 75 percent satisfaction rate with MyFord Touch, with 85 percent of customers saying it was easier to use than SYNC.  It adds that 80 percent of users say they would recommend the system to a friend.

Officials with the company told us that they will arrange for a test vehicle with the current version of MyFord Touch.  We look forward to providing a follow up to our previous coverage, offering more in-depth details on the progress of the new system build.

V. Odds and Ends

The company also stated that it was receiving great feedback about its MyKey feature [1][2] for teen drivers.  It said that it would be expanding the options slightly.  Currently there's an option to limit the vehicle speed on programmed keys to 80 miles per hour.  With the update, you'll be able to program a variety of speeds into the system, including speeds lower than 80 mph.

We asked Ford safety manager Andy Sarkisian whether a time-driven "curfew" might be built into the system as well.  He said that Ford looked into both that an so-called "geofencing" -- constraining how far the teen could go -- but decided that it would be too intrusive and amount to policing drivers.

During his presentation, Mark Fields also through out some interesting numbers onf Ford's uptake of fuel efficient small cars.  He said that in May 2011 Ford saw its highest sales since May 2008.  And he said that for the first time the V6 version of the Ford F150 outsold the V8 version (55 percent to 45 percent).

His presentation also described how fuel economy has risen as a key purchasing factor across every vehicle class -- even in classes like trucks, sportscars, and SUVs, where fuel economy traditionally was a non-issue.

Mr. Fields brags that 12 Ford vehicles led their segment in fuel economy for the 2012 model year and that Ford was the only automaker to offer 4 vehicles with a fuel economy of 40 mpg or better.

In his post-presentation comments, Mr. Fields says that thus far June sales are looking to be just as strong as May's, if not more so.

Ford summed up its guiding research philosophy as "Drive Smart, Drive Safe, Drive Quality, Drive Green."




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