Brian Tucker sits in the parking lot at the North American International Auto Show and issues a series of verbal commands to his car. He asks the car to call his office phone number, play a certain radio station or check his e-mail.
After a woman's electronic voice asks him to repeat himself to ensure the message has been clearly understood, the car, a European-specification Focus, performs the tasks for Tucker, who is Ford engineering manager for telematics.
Telematics technology will be available on the Ford Focus in certain European markets later this year. It makes the vehicle a portal to the Internet and other information and communication services.
This Focus has four buttons on the radio console. One dials an emergency telephone number in the event of a medical or police emergency. A second dials a roadside assistance service in the event of breakdown. A third selects traffic information, and the fourth activates Tucker's phone. He does not have to fumble with a phone handset.
Some luxury cars, including Jaguar S-type, have already introduced voice-activated technology. But the significance of the Focus project, according to Tucker, is that the computers are in a remote location - in this case Portland, Oregon. That means customers do not have to pay for expensive on-board computers.
In effect, Ford will act like a telephone company, deriving revenue from the phone call the consumer makes to connect to the services.
The Focus is just a glimpse of what Ford has in mind. Further out, consumers could see something like the 24-7 concept vehicles Ford introduced in Detroit.
J Mays, Ford group vice president for design, said the 24-7 cars are an acknowledgement of the fact that the personal automobile is no longer the foremost icon of our culture. Personal computers are, and the 24-7 vehicles are rolling Internet ports on wheels. Each member of the family can customize them. One member might keep electronic pictures of the family displayed on the dash, while another could show flowers or a picture of a favorite singer or rock band.
The name 24-7 could join the ever-growing Ford family of brands. Mays said the company has purchased the rights to the name. 24-7 evokes the idea of being connected 24 hours a day, seven days a week.