Go Further with Ford

Ford hosted a bunch of non-car journalist and blogger types in Dearborn for a conference where the talk was about pretty much everything but the cars themselves.

Instead, the focus was on technology. It was a pretty cool event, the most fascinating part for us Sound+Vision folks being the push for more user-friendly in-car communications and entertainment.

Talk to your car, and have it talk back, after the jump.

The basic idea is this: Ford knows people will be texting, emailing, and otherwise not paying attention to the road. These technologies exist, and despite laws and common sense to the contrary, people are going to continue using them. So what can Ford do, as a manufacturer, to make these activities safer? They can't prevent these things from happening, but there are ways to minimize the distraction.

To that end, Ford has come up with a bunch of tech to make the roads safer, not just for the dumbasses on their phones behind the wheel, but for the rest of us who have to deal with said dumbasses.

The first is voice control. Ford launched their Sync system several years ago. I've played with a few generations of the technology so far, and it's been interesting, but still fairly clunky. Every generation gets better, though. For example, in 2007 the system could understand only 100 commands. In 2010, that increased to 1,000. The next gen will have even more. What they want is what they call "natural conversation." The logical analogy is to K.I.T.T. from Knight Rider. They foresee a near future where you just talk to your car like you would a person, and it understands your intent, not just the words you speak.

This system is just the interface. Smartly, Ford wants to facilitate your interaction with whatever tech you use. It's an interesting perspective, but they're definitely pushing the limits of what's possible with current in-car processing and technology.

One of Ford's primary partners is the speech recognition company Nuance, who are the brains behind just about every voice interaction device you've ever used or heard about (like Siri). Chief Creative Officer Gary Clayton was on hand to talk about their perspective on all this. His thought was a need for a universal design language to interact with all your devices, with natural language as its core. He felt that it all comes down to user behavior. How does the user most effectively interact with the world?

John Hendricks from Microsoft, one of Ford's other big partners in Sync, had another perspective on this. He felt that using any technology is a conversation, one made better if tech is a more "proactive" part of the conversation. His example is the car turning down the volume on the radio when you answer call. But in addition, he felt that no matter how advanced you can make the interaction, sometimes people just want to turn a knob or dial. As in, don't do tech for tech sake. He mentioned it was a goal for the design of any car interface to identify the most frequent and common uses, and make them easier. Otherwise people will just take out the phone and crash anyway.

To further explore this goal of simple interaction, they discussed (and later demoed) the latest Sync system. Reading an incoming text message is cool, but not exactly revolutionary. But Sync went the next step, allowing you to dictate your response back to the car, and have it convert your speech to text. Not only would this work with text messages, but with programs like Gmail Chat. The delay is significant enough that I could see this working for text messages like "I'm on my way" or "I'm running late," but I don't think extended conversations are there yet. Certainly not fast enough to have a fluid speech-to-text-to-Gmail chat-to-speech conversation. Still, it's a infinitely better than trying to do any of that in the car now. By sending this speech data to the cloud for processing, other tricks are possible, like accessing Google Translate, in real time. Universal Translator anyone?

Moving towards what's next, Ford previewed some experimental technologies. It revolves around "Driver Workload," a fancy way of describing how much of your attention is required. Driving down an empty freeway, for example, is simple enough to allow incoming phone calls or spoken text messages. Navigating a busy intersection, conversely, is exactly the wrong time to get a call from your mother-in-law.

So how can the car know what you're doing? On one level, by looking at steering, gas and brake inputs. In modern cars, all of this is already electronically monitored. It's just a matter of compiling the data to create a sort of "Intelligent Do-Not-Disturb" feature.

How intelligent? Using the sensors in place already for automatic parking assist, the car can judge what's going on around the car, and add this to the info it already has about the driver. The system can go even further: Biometrics. In future cars, you could see heart rate monitors built into the steering wheel. The subtle pull on your seat belt could judge how fast you're breathing. All of these factors will give the car an idea of what and let's be honest here - it allows to bother you.

It's a fascinating use of current tech to create something different. I'm not sure I want my car knowing that much about me, but then again, I don't even like automatic transmissions.

Click through the gallery for more. Below are two videos I took at the event:

I had never been in a wind tunnel before, and seeing the quintessential smoke over the curve of a car in person was really cool.

And here I am getting tossed around in an SVT Raptor.