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Ford: Think of us as a technology company

CES Ford

Bloomberg News

Ford chief: Alan Mulally, president and chief executive of Ford Motor Co., pauses during a keynote speech during the 2009 Consumer Electronics Show on Jan. 8.

Ford Motor Co. doesn’t want consumers to just think of it as a car manufacturer. It’s hoping they’ll begin viewing it as a technology company.

The image makeover was one of the things the 105-year-old Detroit-based company — the fourth largest auto manufacturer in the world — was selling at last week’s Consumer Electronics Show at the Las Vegas Convention Center.

Alan Mulally, Ford’s chairman and chief executive, was a keynote speaker at the four-day show, which drew an estimated 110,000 people to the city’s first major trade show of 2009. It was the first time that an automotive leader took the stage at the technology showcase, even though the tech industry has been preaching the growth of car gadgetry for years.

“We are a car company,” Mulally told his audience, “but we are working to think and act like a technology company.”

Mulally steered away from Ford’s and the auto industry’s financial woes in favor of showing off what the company’s partnerships with Microsoft, Sirius, Sony and Best Buy are yielding.

Ford announced its partnership with Microsoft on Sync, a factory-installed communications and entertainment system. The next generation of Sync is on the way and will be available on select Ford and Mercury models.

Mulally said there are about 1 million Sync-equipped vehicles on the road and 31 percent of the owners said the technology influenced their decision to buy the vehicle.

Mulally and his tech team explained some of the features of the Sync upgrade, which already includes hands-free, voice-activated phone service and entertainment offerings. The new version will have 911 Assist, which automatically calls the local emergency number when the system senses an accident.

That service will be free for three years after the purchase of the vehicle — a dig at OnStar, a rival emergency communication system that charges a subscription fee for similar service.

The new system also will communicate a “vehicle health report” based on diagnostic readings from the vehicle’s systems, a service that is free for the life of the auto.

By spring, Ford and Microsoft expect to introduce upgraded routing technology that will provide turn-by-turn directions, information services and real-time traffic updates from Seattle-based Inrix, a tech company founded by former Microsoft executives Bryan Mistele and Craig Chapman.

Mistele, who was on a panel on technological innovations in cars on the same day as Mulally’s speech, said the next-generation traffic monitoring software not only would be enhanced with real-time traffic flow transmitted to a central data center by vehicles equipped with speed sensors and that information would be analyzed with historic traffic data to provide routing information.

Other tech innovations at Ford include the MyKey ignition key, introduced in October. The device is a programmable ignition key that limits a vehicle’s speed and sound system volume. It’s designed to give parents of young drivers some peace of mind by preventing the teens from going too fast or being distracted by loud music in the car.

Mulally discussed SmartGuage, a system designed by Microsoft, Sony and Burlington, Mass.-based Nuance Communications that monitors and advises motorists on how to drive more fuel efficiently and ecologically responsible. The system will be available on 2010 Ford Fusion and Mercury hybrid vehicles.

And, Mulally said, most of the vehicles software systems will be easily upgraded via an in-car USB port. At the show, Ford announced a partnership with Best Buy that eventually will develop into a software monitoring agreement with the retail store’s “Geek Squad” repair teams.

Other CES keynote speakers stressed the need for optimism and the necessity of investing in innovation.

Gary Shapiro, chief executive of the 2,200-member Consumer Electronics Association, which sponsors the show, said the industry is forecasting a 0.6 percent decline in revenue in 2009 following a 5.4 percent growth in 2008.

Shapiro said technology has played a leadership role in rebounds from other economic downturns, including the recovery from the 9/11 attacks, and that the industry “not only survived, but flourished” through innovation.

“At times we expand and at times we contract in a free-market economy,” Shapiro said.

He expressed optimism about the upcoming inauguration of President-elect Barack Obama, who he called “our first digital president.”

The Consumer Electronics Association said it expected 130,000 people at this year’s CES, one of the best-attended conventions and trade shows in Las Vegas. But on the show’s last day, the association acknowledged attendance was down, closer to 110,000 but still one of the best-attended shows of the year.

Many representatives complained that traffic was slow compared with previous years, and cab drivers said they didn’t think there were as many people as in past years.

Technology all-stars Howard Stringer and Steve Ballmer also delivered CES addresses.

Stringer, chief executive of Sony, rolled out a parade of stars — actor Tom Hanks, Hall of Fame baseball star Reggie Jackson, Dr. Mehmet Oz, Hollywood producer Jeffrey Katzenberg and pop singer Usher — to help introduce products and upgrades.

Among the innovations were the Flex OLED, a portable and pliable television screen, the Wi-Fi Cyber-Shot camera that automatically e-mails photos by wireless Internet to online photo galleries, new generations of Blu-ray technology that will enable people to view movies and chat about them via the Internet and 3-D television.

Katzenberg, whose DreamWorks production company will be offering 3-D versions of all of its animated films, showed a 3-D clip from his next film, “Monsters vs. Aliens,” and Sony offered at Paris Las Vegas a 3-D broadcast of the Bowl Championship Series college football final.

Microsoft Chief Executive Ballmer, who this year took the reins of the annual CES preshow keynote address from Microsoft founder Bill Gates, focused on the connectivity among computers, television and telephones.

“Over the next couple of years,” Ballmer predicted, “the boundary between the TV and the PC will dissolve.”

Ballmer and a handful of Microsoft executives described the newest upgrade of the company’s Windows operating system, Windows 7, which became available last week in a beta version. Microsoft announced partnerships with Facebook, Verizon, Netflix and Dell Computers for the company’s Windows Live, Windows Live Essentials, Windows Mobile and Xbox products.

All the devices and partnerships are designed to promote connectivity among devices.

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