The news this week that Ford is back in the black, and impressive how they did so without becoming a ward of the US taxpayer. Coincidentally, I took a look at two of the company's latest cars to see what they are doing with installing technology there, and came away with mixed feelings. Yes, they are moving in the right direction, albeit clumsily. And while few people buy a car because of the installed computing features, they are becoming a bigger part of the usage equation as we spend more time commuting and working from our cars.
Ford has two very different computing programs underway, and sadly they are mutually exclusive by design. The latest effort is called Ford Work Solutions, and it is only available on its truck line. The system is based on having a touch screen Windows CE 6.5 inch display in the dash, running a wide variety of software programs including a suite of office apps (but not the real MS Office), LogMeIn, GPS, entertainment controls, and more. Yes, that LogMeIn. It comes with a wide variety of confusing options, including a Bluetooth keyboard, printer, and cellular broadband data modem for Internet connectivity. The ideal target buyer is a building contractor who needs to work from the job site, or a delivery service. You can create documents and print them out in the cab, do a remote control session back to your office to pick up some data, and surf the Web to answer customer queries. The touch screen is a bit clunky, because some of the controls are designed for fingers on the screen rather than on the keyboard, but by and large it seemed well thought out. For example, you can't operate the PC when driving.
But I just couldn't shake the feeling that I was going back to the early days of WebTV, and using technology that was already obsolete before its time found its way into many current hotel rooms. Part of the challenge that car makers have is that by the time a computer is installed in the vehicle, it is out of date. Granted, this is a computer that you don't have to worry too much about -- Ford claims it will withstand brutal environmental conditions -- but it still is a Windows CE based device that is closer to my Uverse TV settop box or my mobile phone than the PC that I am using to write this essay.
The in-dash PC comes with a few handy things, though. It has SD card and USB ports right there on the dash so you can import files or connect to external data sources. You can synch up your phone's contacts and do voice command dialing. It has the GPS display and your audio system controls so you don't have to hunt around for them. And there is an optional tool tracking software where you can stick RFID tags on your tools and instantly do a census before you leave a job site and make sure you got everything back in the truck before you leave. There is also a vehicle tracking and scheduling software called Crew Chief that one Chicago pizza delivery company is using to match demand with supply, as the trucks have their own baking ovens that can finish the pies and get them piping hot to their customers. That seems to offer the most promise, if you can figure out the options.
Ford has done a mediocre job of getting the word out about Work Solutions. They haven't any press loaners to try anywhere in the country -- I had to find one locally that was being used by one of their corporate dealer trainers.The company Web site has some information, but it doesn't satisfy anyone who has moderate tech knowledge, and indeed asks more questions than it answers. They could do better and appeal to more IT-minded potential buyers, rather than the big and brawny Joe SixPack contractors. (Actually, the contractor that my interior designer wife currently uses has a pretty sophisticated Web site that tracks his job progress and tasks, but that is story for another essay.) Each truck has to be specially ordered with the computer factory installed, so you can't just walk in off the lot and drive one home. They aren't all that expensive as computer options go -- the monthly fees for the cellular modem and LogMeIn is probably the biggest obstacle just because people don't normally think their car needs an additional monthly payment for communications. And there are a confusing array of options and add-ons, which is why the dealers need training here. The biggest issue is that they aren't available in their sedans. I shouldn't have to buy a pickup truck, or even their sexy Transit Connects (which you see all over Europe and are just being imported here) to get a measly WinCE PC.
Why not just spend your money on a laptop with a cellular modem and call it a day? You can get a "real" PC with a bigger screen and put whatever apps on it you desire, and still have the connectivity back to your office or Internet access if you need it. The only trouble is that you either have to leave your laptop at risk inside your car or have to tote it around with you. If you are a contractor or a delivery person or someone else constantly on the go, it might make sense to go with the in-dash PC.
What about the other Ford tech package? This is the Sync software that they developed with Microsoft. It is designed for a character-mode display and isn't a real computer in the sense of even a CE-based device. It can sync up with your cell phone, offer turn by turn navigation instructions (but not a visual display of the landscape), and automatically mute the radio when an incoming call is detected for your cell phone. This is available on most of the newer model cars, and Ford will throw in the navigation package free if you buy other options for Sync. Or so I was led to believe. Again, figuring out all these options is maddening, and why so many of us run screaming from our local car dealers.
Now, you should know that I have rather quirky car buying habits: I have only owned cars for about 25 years, roughly half my life, and only bought one Big Three American car over that period (my current car was made in Canada and is actually offered by Ford, although I bought the Toyota version). I don't drive it enough to consider the Work Solutions package even if it were available in a sedan.
While I give Ford credit for trying to add some interesting technology to their vehicles, they have a long way to go before many people will choose to use it. Yet it is noteworthy in that they are attempting to go after a part of the market that the other car makers have ignored: road warriors that want to get work done in their cars, and not just deliver fancy infotainment systems. Now if they could appeal to the nerds they might have a winner.