Ford’s Director of Connected Services Doug VanDagens on the Digital Future of Cars

 Update 01/14/09: Since writing this, I uploaded the full transcript and the video of the interview with Ford's Doug VanDagens.

Yesterday, I posted a column on my interview with Doug VanDagens
of Ford Motor Company. Today, you get the full interview. I'm partial
to text since it's easier to read during the workday, so you can choose
between the video or the full transcript (very slightly modified for

Sync Powered by MicrosoftImage by Ford Motor Company via Flickr

Doug VanDagens: Hi, Doug VanDagens, how are you?

David Berkowitz: Good, thanks? Do you just want to share what you're doing?

DV: I'm the Director of Connected Services, so I'm responsible for connecting our vehicles with all the services off-board – satellite radio, now we've got an internet connection, HD radio, things along those lines. So we've got a whole host of awesome services, some that we've just announced back in December.

What we're announcing here at the show is an ability to connect to the internet through a normal voice plan. So all you need is your phone, and we can take Sync through Bluetooth, connect to your phone, connect out to Tellme, which is a voice portal – a best in class voice portal, and Microsoft now owns those assets. From there we can direct you to a number of Internet data sources. We can send the GPS information from the vehicle, we can send health report diagnostic information over your voice plan, and then we have traffic, directions, business search, and information, all internet-based.

DB: So have you done some initial testing to see how people are already using this or is this really just rolling off the shelves now?

DV: It's just rolling off. I mean we're announcing it tomorrow [January 8] and it will be available in the spring, but the coolest thing about it is it's going to be available on every new vehicle we're going to make in 2009, from the Focus to the high-end cars.

DB: This seems unusual to me at least. I don't follow the automotive industry that closely, but it seems that when a new feature comes out, it's on your premium model.

DV: Correct. So when we first introduced Sync, we introduced it on the Focus, and the young people loved it, right? It's a connection to an MP3 player, hands-free cellular calling. This is the same thing. It's free on every one of our vehicles. There's another automaker that announced some services similar to this, but it's only available on their high-end luxury cars. This service is going to be available on every one of our vehicles, free for three years.

You'll have access to the internet information. You can personalize it. If you want news you can go in and say "I want technology news," "I want business news." It'll be read to you. You can get sports, news, weather. Later this year we're going to introduce movies and stock prices.

You can get navigation information, so you can go out and say, "Find me the closest Starbucks," and it will go out, based on your location, and find the closest Starbucks to you, analyze the traffic conditions, tell you how to get there the fasest way, and download the directions to your car. The call will end, and now you'll get turn-by-turn directions. It will say, "Turn right at 200 yards," "Turn right now," it will take you anywhere you want to go. It will do business search – you can get the phone number, and all of this is free for three years.

DB: Does this work in conjunction with GPS or more as a replacement?

DV: We've added GPS in all of our vehicles. Starting in January, all of our new vehicles will have GPS. So we send the location from the car so we know where you're at. You can say things like, "Search nearby," and they'll find anything that you want nearby. You can do a business search, you can do it by category, you can do it by actual business name, by proximity. So you can say, "Find me an Italian restaurant."

DB: What are you getting out of this by making it a free service?

DV: We're making our customers happy. We're offering something to them that nobody else is offering. It's free navigation, free business search, free directions, free information, and all you need is your cell phone.

DB: How easy is this to set up? If my dad's driving a Ford and he has a 2009 model, is this something that he'll need to call me or his mechanic to spend a year setting up?

DV: If he has Sync, you do have to prepare the initial Bluetooth pairing with the phone, that's a two-step process. Once you do that, all you've got to do is when it says, "Sync," you say, "Services," and then we have a voice portal that can train novice users and say, "What would you like? You can get services like information, traffic, directions," and it learns with your dad. As your dad starts understanding how to use the system, it will stop giving him the choices and just say, "How can I help you?" But initially, it will tell him what he needs to ask for, give him the list, and then he can go out and get it. That's all he needs to do – nothing else.

DB: Have you been taking this for a test drive yourself?

DV: We are fast to the market. We just got the first version of this over Christmas. So we took it out and we've been running with it and it works great.

DB: How do you think this changing things? This was one of the few places people couldn't readily search before, and search is so ingrained in people's lives. How do you think this is playing into that and how might this change consumer behavior?

DV: I think the first thing it does is it makes it safer to drive your vehicle. Right now when people want to find a place to go or use their phone or an MP3 player, they're doing it anyway. They're looking down and dialing. This makes your car safer to use because if you need to find a place to go, it will automatically do it through voice. Our priority is voice. You can just talk to it, keep your hands on the wheel, your eyes on the road, and you get the information you need. That's the first thing it'll do. The second thing it'll do is it will make access to information that you need fun. You can get the latest technology news. You can personalize your sports, you can personalize the weather. So it makes the driving experience fun and safe.

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