What Happened to the Smart Cars? Ford’s Efforts to Impress NYT Columnist Evidently Fall Short

2/28/11Follow @xconomy

Ford wants to build “smart” cars that can communicate with each other and the road to boost safety, an aim we can all presumably get behind. But when it comes to cars facilitating human to human communication…well, that’s another story.

In her Sunday column, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd said she feared that Ford’s cornucopia of “in-car connectivity” technologies—including an avatar that can read e-mails out loud, recommend music, and update schedules—would inevitably distract drivers and cause accidents.

Ford had invited Dowd to their headquarters to test the technology. But the company’s efforts to woo the famously snippy columnist seemed to fall short.

“Remember when your car used to be a haven of peace from the world?” Dowd wrote. “Now it’s just a bigger, noisier and much more dangerously distracting smartphone.”

Not quite the PR that Ford wanted, I’m sure. But Dowd’s column was notable for what it didn’t say.

The 800 word piece didn’t touch on Ford’s sizable investment into “intelligent” vehicles: cars and trucks that can wirelessly transmit data between each other, such as location, speed, proximity, and brake status.

Ford’s interest in smart cars extends far beyond mere research. Guided a company-wide task force of executives, scientists and engineers, the company hopes to debut the cars in five years.

“We kind of like to get it out as soon as we can,” project leader Mike Shulman told me earlier this month.

It seems unlikely that Ford forgot to tell Dowd about the effort. The company recently launched a considerable public relations campaign highlight its research in intelligent vehicles, which it claimed could help prevent the very accidents Dowd wrote about.

Ford’s smart cars are equipped with sensors and cameras can alert drivers to nearby accidents, or signal if they risk colliding with another vehicle at an intersection.

Dowd, a Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist, even begins her piece about nearly crashing a car into the back of a truck in Ford simulator because she takes her eyes off the road for two seconds.

Dowd also interviewed Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, whose agency is spearheading IntelliDrive. The agency, in corporation with Ford and other automakers, wants to build high tech infrastructure across the country that allows cars to “communicate” with roads, highways, and bridges, exchanging information on traffic patterns, road conditions, and weather. But again, no mention in Dowd’s column.

Dowd contends that Ford’s gizmos will enable drivers to drive distracted more than they already do.

“Given that…we’re talking about human beings who live in an A.D.D. world, wouldn’t it be safer to try to curb the addiction, rather than indulging it?” she writes.

It’s a fair concern. I asked a similar question of Ford’s Shulman and his answer was less than inspiring.

“We have not seen that in the data,” he said.

The carmaker faces a complex challenge. It wants to integrate popular consumer devices into its products. At the same time, the company wants to promote its efforts to mitigate distracted driving caused by those devices.

Judging by Dowd’s column, Ford has a lot of work to do.

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  • Ian

    To me, the whole direction of this type of technology makes me think of Joseph Tainter’s analysis of the fall of complex societies throughout history coming as the result of diminishing marginal returns on complexity.