Vehicles That Help Do Your Job

Cars have had computers for years. The fact that today’s vehicles get good fuel economy while emitting little exhaust is simply one example of the computer power of a modern automobile. Yet aside from some entertainment and navigation functions, drivers haven’t been able to tap into the vehicle’s computer power or even do rudimentary tasks like browse the Internet -- until now.

Ford Motor Co. has hurdled the competition with several industry-exclusive technologies that will help make business owners more productive and successful, and it points the way for applications that we will soon see in noncommercial cars and trucks.

The new effort, going under the heading “Ford Work Solutions,” starts with an in-dash computer developed with Magneti Marelli and powered by Microsoft Auto. The computer provides full high-speed Internet access via the Sprint mobile broadband network, Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calling and navigation by Garmin. It is the first broadband-capable factory-installed in-dash computer in a production vehicle. (What took it so long?) The system allows customers to print invoices, check inventories and access documents stored on their home or office computer networks right on the job site. Pretty much anything you can do in your office, you can now do in your Ford truck with the convenience of Internet access, various applications like word processing and spreadsheets, and a full-size wireless keyboard.

“Our truck customers are smart, and they work hard,” said Mark Fields, Ford’s president of The Americas. “Ford Work Solutions provides truck customers new technologies and tools to help them work even smarter and further boost their productivity.”

The in-vehicle computer might seem like a huge step forward -- and it is -- but that isn’t the whole story. If you’ve ever left a tool at a job site only to have it disappear, you will very much appreciate Tool Link, a radio-frequency-identification asset-tracking system. With Tool Link, you simply tag your tools (or sporting goods or kids’ toys) with embedded RFID-enabled labels, and you may never lose another hammer or power saw. This technology -- developed in partnership with DeWALT, a top maker of professional power tools, and ThingMagic, an expert on radio-frequency ID technology -- enables customers to maintain a detailed real-time inventory of their tools and equipment. If the tool is not in your truck as you prepare to depart the job site, the system will let you know. Unfortunately, it won’t find it for you … at least not yet. In another effort to help you keep your stuff, Ford Work Solutions also features a cable lock security system developed in partnership with Master Lock to discourage theft of expensive tools too large to fit inside the truck.

Finally, it’s not enough to simply manage your business and keep track of your stuff; you also have to manage your employees and keep track of them. Crew Chief provides the dynamic location and performance data fleet owners need to manage their vehicles more efficiently, quickly dispatch workers to job sites, monitor driver and driver performance for safety and economy, and keep detailed vehicle maintenance records. It was developed by Ford with market-leading telematics specialist Microlise, and it might tell you more about your employees’ behavior than you want to know.

Ford’s strategy in all this is clear: It wants to extend easy-to-use technology solutions to its customers, and it wants to do it in a way that adds value to its products. That’s something all business owners can appreciate.

Electric Vehicles That Talk to the 'Grid'

There is a firestorm of interest in electric vehicles these days, at least from manufacturers and utilities, if less so from the public at large. Nissan has unveiled its upcoming LEAF all-electric vehicle. General Motors has touted the plug-in, electrically driven Chevrolet Volt. Ford Motor Co. says it will offer a battery-electric Transit Connect commercial van in 2010, a battery-electric Focus compact car in 2011, and a plug-in and a next-generation hybrid electric vehicle in 2012. But this begs the question, How will we recharge all these electric cars that will hit the market? And how can we do it efficiently?

One way is with an intelligent vehicle-to-grid communications and control system that “talks” directly with the nation's electric grid. Ford says it has developed just such a system, building on its other “new technologies” like SYNC, SmartGauge with EcoGuide and Ford Work Solutions. The beauty of vehicles that communicate with the electrical grid is that they allow the vehicle operator to program when, for how long and at what utility rate to recharge the vehicle. 

“Electric vehicles are an important element of our strategy for improving fuel economy and reducing carbon dioxide emissions,” said Bill Ford, Ford’s executive chairman and one of the few auto executives who have built a long-term green reputation. “This vehicle-to-grid communication technology is an important step in the journey toward the widespread commercialization of electric vehicles.”

When plugged in, the battery systems of the specially equipped plug-in hybrids can communicate directly with the electrical grid via smart meters provided by utility companies through wireless networking. The owner uses the vehicle’s touch-screen navigation interface and an in-dash computer to set when the vehicle should recharge, for how long and at what rate. For example, a vehicle owner could choose to accept a charge only during off-peak hours, between midnight and 6 a.m., when electricity rates are cheaper or when the grid is using only renewable energy like wind or solar power.

“We are designing what plug-in hybrids and battery-electric vehicles will be capable of in the future,” said Greg Frenette, manager of Ford's Battery Electric Vehicle Applications. “Direct communication between vehicles and the grid can only be accomplished through collaboration between automakers and utility companies, which Ford and its partners are demonstrating with this technology.”

All 21 of Ford’s fleet of plug-in hybrid Escapes will eventually be equipped with the vehicle-to-grid communications technology. The first of the specially equipped plug-in hybrids has been delivered to American Electric Power of Columbus, Ohio. Ford’s other utility partner vehicles will also be equipped with the communications technology. Over the past two years, Ford and its energy industry partners have logged more than 75,000 miles on the plug-in hybrid test fleet. The plug-in hybrid research focuses on four primary areas: battery technology, vehicle systems, customer usage and grid infrastructure.

“Broad commercialization of electric transportation is not something a car company can achieve on its own,” said Nancy Gioia, Ford director, Sustainable Mobility Technologies. “Developing and producing the vehicles is just one part of the electric transportation equation. We are well on our way to delivering the vehicles, but for widespread adoption, the infrastructure to support the technology needs to be in place, and we need to ensure that the national electric grid can support increased electric demand.”

You can bet demand won’t be there if electric vehicles prove difficult and/or costly to recharge. In addition to low-cost recharging at home through the use of a smart meter, researchers say recharging away from home -- whether at work, in a shopping mall parking lot or at a curbside station -- needs to be as simple as plugging in and swiping a credit card.

Did Cash for Clunkers Do Its Job?

The government’s CARS 2009 Cash for Clunkers program has come to an end, prompting anyone with a point of view to attempt to spin the outcome. “An unqualified success,” say its backers, including the Democrats in Congress and the Obama administration. “Another instance of government ineptitude,” say its detractors, who include many prominent Republicans. “A clear win for the environment,” claim parties as different as the Alliance of Automobile Manufacturers and the Obama administration. “An expensive boondoggle that won’t help the environment at all,” retort its detractors, including some with a leftist, environmental slant and some rock-ribbed conservatives.

Amid all the claims and counter-claims about Cash for Clunkers, one thing is clear: The CARS 2009 program stimulated the sales of new, more fuel-efficient vehicles. When all is said and done, the CARS program provided the impetus for more than half a million new-vehicle sales at a time when the auto industry was suffering in an unprecedented way. You can certainly ask the question, Were the renewed new-car sales worth the $3 billion in government spending that it took to generate them? But one thing abundantly clear in the aftermath of the program is that the $3 billion that was spent on it changed the market. Again, you might contend the change wasn’t positive or worth the precious tax dollars, but it was change.

Just as when car manufacturers offer cash back on car purchases, dollars and a deadline motivate potential buyers to get off the couch. In the case of CARS 2009, it very quickly changed what people wanted to buy as well. Small, fuel-efficient vehicles immediately got much more popular, and vehicles that didn’t have those attributes fell by the wayside. If you agree that dollars motivate behavior, it is not hard to understand why consumers’ tastes changed. Even though small cars are frequently put on sale by manufacturers, an incentive of $4,500 on a vehicle that might retail for $18,000 is absolutely unprecedented. Yes, there were some strings -- you had to own a qualifying clunker -- but this was indeed the chance of a lifetime. Americans are pretty quick to recognize a good deal when they see it, and more than half a million eager buyers took advantage of the government’s plan and their fellow citizens’ tax dollars.  

We have already heard the claim that the CARS 2009 program didn’t really create new-vehicle sales; it simply “pulled forward” many new-car sales that would have happened eventually anyway. There is some truth to that, but CARS 2009 also succeeded in creating a substantial number of incremental new-vehicle sales, because it is more than likely that in the absence of the program, many of the “clunkers” would otherwise have been replaced by a newer used vehicle. Or they might not have been replaced at all. Used-car retailers, who were left out of the program, undoubtedly feel ill-used, but if the goal was to create new-car sales, the goal was realized.

In the heavily politicized world in which we live, debate on CARS 2009 will continue, but to the extent that it got American consumers in a car-buying mood again, it was a significant success. Now that it’s over, though, will consumers sit on their wallets again until another CARS-like program comes along?

Big Cars Remain Big Winners With Americans

Many politicians will tell you that the problem that sent two of the big three American automakers into bankruptcy was their failure to build small, fuel-efficient cars. Government policy over the next several years is expected to push that “small is better” agenda. But if you look at consumer preferences as recorded by market research, the story is entirely different. Just witness the top vehicles honored by the 2009 Motorist Choice Awards. According to that program, which recognizes new cars and trucks that give their owners both economic and emotional satisfaction, new-car buyers favor large and luxury automobiles. There is simply no doubt about that.

The fourth annual Motorist Choice Awards survey, announced today, scores 196 cars, trucks, crossovers and SUVs. Of those, nearly 200 vehicles, large and luxury vehicles dominated this year’s results. The top 34 ranked vehicles and 106 of the top 107 were large cars, luxury cars, sport utility vehicles, crossover SUVs or minivans. Only one small car, the BMW 1 series, ranked in the top 100, at the 35th slot. After the 1 series, the Toyota Prius was the next highest-scoring small car, coming in 107th. With the top overall scores in both owner satisfaction and value, the Lexus LS, a substantially sized luxury sedan, placed highest of any 2009 model-year vehicle.

While the award program doesn’t suggest that a switch to building small cars will help General Motors with profitability, there were some good news for GM: The U.S. government-owned manufacturer collected six vehicle-segment awards, placing it second among the manufacturers who compete in the U.S. market. Toyota was the leading manufacturer with nine awards, including three won by the Lexus brand. While some in government would like GM to think small, GM’s wins came in the following categories: large car (Cadillac DTS in a tie with Lincoln Town Car), sports car (Chevrolet Corvette), large pickup (Chevrolet Avalanche), premium luxury SUV (Cadillac Escalade), large SUV (Chevrolet Tahoe) and large crossover SUV (Chevrolet Traverse).

Awards were given for top-scoring vehicles in each of the 23 segments, and for the top-scoring brand, which was Lexus this year. In addition to Toyota and GM, seven other manufacturers earned segment awards. Honda captured three and Chrysler two, while Audi, Ford, Hyundai, Nissan and Volkswagen took top honors in one segment each.

The Motorist Choice Awards were co-developed by Tustin, Calif.-based AutoPacific (known for its owner satisfaction rankings) and Campbell, Calif.-based IntelliChoice (a source for automotive ownership cost and value analysis) to recognize the vehicles that delivered both the highest customer satisfaction and the lowest cost of ownership. The awards combine AutoPacific’s owner satisfaction data from new car and truck buyers with IntelliChoice’s cost-of-ownership rating methodology to find and honor vehicles that speak to the heart and wallet of car buyers.

“Clearly, consumers still get great satisfaction from large and luxurious cars despite the economy, rising fuel costs and manufacturers’ focus on smaller vehicles,” said George Peterson, president of AutoPacific. “The highest-scoring cars in this survey are premium luxury cars, large cars, crossovers and SUVs, whether they’re built in the U.S., Asia or Europe. This affinity for big vehicles makes the American market unique compared to the rest of the world.”

So, bigger is still better in the United States, and it doesn’t seem that it’s going to change anytime soon.

Buy a New GM Car Online?

General Motors has just announced that it is teaming up with eBay in an experiment to sell vehicles online. The “promotion” enables consumers to “click and buy” new cars, crossovers and trucks online, from participating Chevrolet, Buick, GMC and Pontiac dealers, at what GM characterizes as “outstanding values.” Since it is a promotion and an experiment, the new car-shopping Web site will be available to consumers only through September 8.

For those weary of white-belted car salesmen, the new effort may be Nirvana. No worry here about what salesman you may get: Consumers will be able to browse the inventory of hundreds of California dealers, ask questions, negotiate prices and arrange financing and payment to purchase new 2008, 2009 or some early 2010 cars, crossovers or trucks -- all online. Since more than 225 GM dealers in California are participating, shoppers can expect to see a wide selection of up to 20,000 new GM vehicles of competitive prices at any given time. What consumers won’t be able to do is buy vehicles directly from General Motors, due to state franchise laws that protect auto dealers.

If you’re an eBay shopper, you’ll be at home in the new section of the site. Vehicles will be offered through eBay Motors' traditional formats, such as Buy It Now (where shoppers agree to pay the advertised price) and eBay's innovative Best Offer (where buyers indicate the price they are willing to pay and can negotiate online with the dealer for the vehicle). So you can still negotiate to buy your next vehicle; you just don’t have to do it in the dank, airless, fluorescently lit backroom you had to endure in the dealership. And with one click of the mouse, you are “out of there.”

The new site incorporates features that will allow consumers to compare pricing across models or participating dealerships, get tips and advice with a Buyer Checklist and determine the value of their trade-in or whether their current vehicle may also qualify for government-funded Cash for Clunkers incentives, which will expire about the same time the program does.

"Together with eBay Motors, GM and our dealers are reinventing the car-buying experience for our California customers," says Mark LaNeve, newly appointed GM vice president of U.S. sales. "As the dealer showroom expands from the parking lot to the laptop, this makes it easier for a customer to browse available new-car inventory, make an offer, buy it now or send a message asking for more information from a dealer -- all at the customer's convenience."

As the new program implies, the Internet is becoming the new dealer showroom and playing an increasingly important role in auto selection and purchase. A recent J.D. Power & Associates study notes that more than 75 percent of new-vehicle buyers in 2008 used the Web during their shopping and research process. If it works in the Golden State, you can expect GM and eBay to roll it out nationwide in the months to come.