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CES Notebook: Do automakers finally get it?

I’m old-enough to remember when Americans looked forward to new car models to marvel at the latest designs, features and oomph thatDetroit engineered into our cars. Those days ended sometime in the seventies when cars — especially American cars — became me-too commodities.

From what I’m seeing at the Consumer Electronics Show, we’re entering a new golden-age for autos. I spent some time with Ford CEO Alan Mulally and Chief Technology Officer Paul Mascarenas during CES (you can read about it as listen to the podcast over at my CNET blog) and I came away quite impressed.

Larry Magid sat down with Ford CEO Alan Mulally (Credit: Ford)

One of the things that impressed me was Ford’s departure from the “not invented here” mentality that has long contributed to mediocre car entertainment and navigation systems. It’s not only an American problem — Japanese and European automaker are also saddled with in-car technology that is obsolete before the first car rolls off the assembly line, let alone after a person has owned the car for several years. Like a lot of people, I keep typically keep my cars for about ten years but I like to replace the consumer technology I use in the car far more often.

By 2022 — when today’s cars are 10 years old — their built-in nav and entertainment systems are going to look mighty old.  Ford’s strategy is allow users to leverage whatever mobile technology they have at the time by building in-dash screens that communicate with smart phones.

It’s not a perfect strategy — even screen technology will evolve and there could be new generations of smart phones that they won’t be able to interact with — but it still makes more sense than building very expensive systems, typically adding more than $2,000 to the sticker price of a new car.

The company has opened a Silicon Valley research center and is collaborating with other companies to deliver better technology. “It’s all about collaboration and partnership and open architecture,” Mulally said in my CBS News/CNET interview. “We’ve watched many people try to develop all their own capability and embed it into the vehicle What we have found is that the most import thing we can do is manage the interface so we can help people be less distracted but more connected.”

The U.S. auto-industry still has a long way to go, but from what I’m seeing at CES, it’s finally moving in the right direction.


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