Ford Motor Co. this fall will offer a dealer-installed, hands-free phone system as an option on three vehicle lines, amid growing concerns about distracted drivers.
The technology, a docking station designed by Cellport Systems Inc. of Boulder Colo., allows hand-held cell phones to be used hands-free with voice commands to activate the phone. The system uses the vehicle's audio system for responses.
The system initially will be offered on the 2002 Ford Windstar and Taurus and Mercury Sable. Early next year, it will be a factory-installed option on the Lincoln Continental and Town Car.
By the middle of next year, the system will be available as a dealer-installed option for most Ford and Lincoln Mercury products, said Kurt Kiser, North American manager for vehicle personalization at Ford. Future factory installations will depend on the success of sales, Kiser said.
The race is on for hands-free phone capability as several states have legislation pending that would restrict drivers' use of hand-held cell phones. In June, New York was the first state to pass legislation limiting the use of hand-held cell phones by drivers.
In the past year, concern over driver distraction has skyrocketed as cell phones and navigation units have proliferated. General Motors, for example, will to offer drivers Internet and e-mail services in the 2002 Cadillac Seville.
'Eyes on the road, hands on the wheel' is the industry's guiding principle for developing telematics. GM's OnStar unit offers Virtual Advisor, which can read e-mail and other information to the driver over an embedded cell phone link.
Burst of interest
A key attribute of the Cellport system is it allows drivers to use their own hand-held cell phones, which can be taken from the vehicle. OnStar uses a cell phone embedded in the vehicle that can't be removed and has its own phone number.
'Over the last month we've received five (requests for quotes) from automakers, which was more than we received over the last six months,' said Pat Kennedy, Cellport's founder and chairman, who also said the New York ban contributed to this interest.
The Cellport system is compatible with all network providers. Using adapters, the system works with cell phone brands Motorola and Nokia. Cellport plans to have adapters ready for other cell phone brands, such as Nextel and Samsung, by year end. Front- or back-seat occupants can use the phone via voice commands.
Ford and Lincoln dealerships this fall will sell the system as an aftermarket accessory. It can be installed in less than one hour. Ford's personalization center in Mira Loma, Calif., also will handle installations for Southern California dealers who would rather outsource the work.
Cellport, a private company largely funded by AT&T Wireless Systems, Cisco Systems Inc. and Omron Corp. of Japan, has a two-year contract with Ford that ends in the third quarter of 2003. It is estimated to be worth about $48 million, Kennedy said.
The company spent about $25 million in r&d for the system, which already is sold in aftermarket retail stores nationwide for $250 plus installation, which ranges from $75 to $150.
Ford would not disclose its price for the factory- or dealer-installed hardware, though pricing will have to be competitive with the aftermarket retail, Kiser said.
Battling driver distraction
The deal is only part of Ford's attempt to deal with driver distraction.
'This is a first step, in terms of driver distraction, and as we move forward, we want to develop systems that actually add safety benefits as well as convenience for our customers,' said Sara Tatchio, a Ford spokeswoman.
Ford is working with San Diego-based Wingcast Inc., its joint venture with Qualcomm Inc. Wingcast's telematics are expected to appear in Ford vehicles in the 2003 model year.
Wingcast is focusing on an embedded, hands-free phone system in which one phone number could be used for the in-vehicle system and for a hand-held unit outside the vehicle.
There is no working relationship between Wingcast and Cellport, said Joanne Coleman, vice president of marketing for Wingcast.
Making it simple
Offering consumers compatibility with multiple cell phones is something Delphi Automotive Systems Corp. also is trying to achieve.
As Delphi prepares to launch the next-generation of its aftermarket docking station - called the Communiport Mobile Productivity Center - in the first half of 2002, one of its top priorities is to adapt the system so it can accept more types of cell phones. The product is compatible with only two models of Ericsson phones.
But voice-based systems such as Delphi's and Cellport's are not the panacea for driver distraction, said Donald Redelmeier, a University of Toronto medical professor who conducted a 1997 cell phone study based on crash data. His work found that hands-free is not always risk-free.
Said Redelmeier: 'It wasn't so much just a matter of keeping drivers' hands on the wheel as it was keeping their minds on the road.'