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Coming soon: 'Smart cars' that send text messages, make reservations, and tell other cars it's raining ahead

Coming soon: 'Smart cars' that send text messages, make reservations, and tell other cars it's raining ahead

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Ford's new Touch and Sync in-car communications systems show that the next frontier for innovation is your dashboard. Say hello to hands-free, voice activated in-car computing.

LAS VEGAS -- Seen any gadgets with Bluetooth,  Wi-Fi, USB, LCD touchscreens, Internet media streaming and phone calling and text messaging ability?

How about in your driveway?

Ford announced on Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, Nevada that its next-generation Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles are going smart, ditching the old dashboard and center console for a pair of colorful touchscreen voice-activated displays that can control your car, your phone and pull music, maps and news directly from the Internet.

Called "Touch," the system dovetails with Ford's existing Sync communications system to make computing possible without taking your eyes off the road and hands off the steering wheel.

On the car's steering wheel, five-way directional controls allow selection ability of the dynamic graphical interface that replaces your old speedometer and dial cluster, as well as another display that replaces your old center media console where the radio normally goes.

Both can be controlled using the steering wheel controls or, when at speed, using voice commands.

So what can you do with it? Functions are divided into four color-coded categories: Phone, Navigation, Entertainment and Climate.

What that means is that you can access MapQuest maps, in-car GPS navigation and turn-by turn directions in one quadrant; mobile phone and SMS text messaging in another quadrant, weather, news and stock quotes in a third quadrant; and local music, Internet radio, movie times and Internet browsing in the fourth.

The "smart" system even has its own intelligence, and gets better over time by "learning" and adapting to your voice.

But the real power of the Touch system isn't what it currently offers -- it's what doors it opens for the future. Combined with Sync, which talks to your mobile phone and other devices, Ford can marry everything inside your vehicle to the greater, Internet-powered ecosystem outside of it.

In addition to access to MapQuest maps, Pandora Internet radio and GPS functionality, it can also sync preferences (such as whether you want to follow a certain sports team, or whether you "favorite" a song that's playing in Pandora) from the Internet.

For example, you can "tag" an HD radio song you hear playing and the car will send that information directly to your iPod so you can then purchase the track.

Or with MapQuest, you can send a map you look up on your computer directly to your vehicle -- so you don't have to print directions.

The car can also read text messages (or Twitter tweets) received in real-time and allow you to respond via text or, in the case of an SMS, actually just call that person back, entirely hands-free.

You can even buy movie tickets or make dinner reservations on the way home from work using only voice commands.

And now that your speedometer and gas gauges are intelligent, they can actually coach you to be a more fuel-efficiend driver.

Cool, huh?

Ford's rolling out the system across its three brands -- Ford, Lincoln and Mercury -- and as you might expect, the luxury Lincoln brand gets exclusive details that the Ford and Mercury systems do not. For example, the entire center console is touch-sensitive -- no more mechanical buttons -- meaning you can adjust the fan speed by sliding your finger along a touch sensitive slider.

Even better, the car knows you: as you open the door, the system welcomes you by name. And the color of the ambient cup holder and foot well lights are adjustable from central Touch display.

"Who would imagine that five years ago, regular people could afford a car with Internet access?" said Jason Johnson, Ford's user interface design engineer for Sync, at the CES keynote speech at the Las Vegas Hilton.

That's not all, either. By leveraging the power of the smart, connected, Internet-ready vehicle, Ford can explore ways to create a smart highway ecosystem: if several cars driving on a road turn on their windshield wipers or lights, Ford said it could use that data to warn others within a few miles' radius to do the same in anticipation of inclement weather.

"What the mouse did for the PC, we need to come up with for [the car]" said Jim Buczkowski, Ford director of Global Electrical and Electronics Systems Engineering. "We need to come up with a mouse."

The whole system is powered by technology developed by Microsoft, who also struck a deal with Kia for a system called "Uvo."

Ford CEO Alan Mulally stressed during his keynote speech the company's "four principles" -- quality, safety, fuel efficiency and "smart" technologies -- and how Touch and Sync work to accomplish the last two.

"These are the features that set us apart -- our signature brand technologies," Mulally said, adding that the features were "strategically important" and help to differentiate the company's offerings from competition.

Ford also mentioned some other neat tech it was putting in its cars:

  • Active park assist -- an intuitive system that accommodates for driver assumptions
  • Radar-based blind spot information system, including cross traffic alerts
  • Easyfuel capless fuel filler -- racing inspired tech
  • EcoBoost, to increase the efficiency of traditional internal combustion engines (parallel to hybrid development)

Ford says it plans on implementing the Touch system in 80 percent of its new vehicles in the next five years, from the Ford Focus, Edge and Taurus to the Lincoln MKX crossover.

The company is so excited about the possibilities of an Internet-powered ecosystem in the car that it made reference to the hands-free, heads-up displays used by Tom Cruise's character in Minority Report and Robert Downey, Jr.'s character in Iron Man.

With Sync and Touch and Kia's Uvo system and others like it, auto makers are quickly becoming tech companies. And it's not just about Ford, either. The car's dashboard has truly become the "fourth screen" for which to develop -- as robust as any laptop or mobile phone -- and the companies that can successfully break into that environment stand to gain a significant advantage.

Better still, your favorite services on your laptop and smartphone (and possibly even HDTV, if it's new enough) will soon come to your car in seamless integration.

The future is clear: the automobile is the next major frontier for computing innovation. Laptop, smartphone and HDTV? Meet the dashboard.

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Andrew Nusca

Editor Emeritus

Andrew Nusca is editor of SmartPlanet and an associate editor for ZDNet. Previously, he worked at Money, Men's Vogue and Popular Mechanics magazines. He holds degrees from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism and New York University. He is based in New York but resides in Philadelphia. Follow him on Twitter. Disclosure