By Bernie Woodall
DEARBORN, Michigan (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co will expand the use of its on-board smartphone applications for the 2012 model year, the automaker said at a safety and technology show for reporters.
The Ford Sync communications and entertainment system will be able to connect with smartphones on models including the Fusion sedan, F-150 pickup trucks, and the Expedition SUV, the company announced on Tuesday.
The option, called Sync AppLink, is already available on the subcompact Ford Fiesta, and Ford had previously said it would be available on the 2012 Ford Mustang.
The Sync system, without the Synch Applink option, is available across the Ford and Lincoln lineup as a $400 option on some models and is standard on others.
Mark Fields, president of Ford operations in North America and South America, said a recent study showed that smartphones will overtake feature phones in the United States. And, he said, two-thirds of smartphone users want to use them in their vehicles.
"Mobile app growth is literally skyrocketing," said Fields. "This is a trend that we cannot ignore, especially as a Nationwide Insurance study shows that one in four Americans who download apps admits to using them while driving."
Improved ease of on-board control systems and the Sync AppLink will help keep a driver's eyes on the road, said Fields and Ford director of connected services, Douglas VanDagens.
VanDagens said the Sync application to link smartphones will eventually be a factory option on all Ford and Lincoln vehicles.
Ford was stung early this year when influential magazine Consumer Reports did not give a "recommended" rating to SUVs Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX because of the complexity of the audio and interior control systems. These are the MyFord Touch and the MyLincoln Touch systems.
"Customers told us early on that there were some issues with MyFord Touch, and we've been listening and we've been fixing them," said Fields.
Fields said that Ford has made software changes and offered customers training at Ford dealers when they purchase a car equipped with the systems.
Consumer Reports will not test the Ford and Lincoln systems until the new model year because it does not appear that they will be significantly changed until then, said Dave Champion, director of the auto test center for Consumer Reports, in a telephone interview on Tuesday.
"Anything that would make MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch system easier to use would be an advantage," Champion said.
Champion said that some of the controls below a touch screen on Lincoln vehicles tested by Consumer Reports were spaced so that the driver could easily touch a button not intended. This can be a safety issue, Champion said on Tuesday, because a driver's eyes could be distracted from the road for more than two seconds.
"We think that any control in the car should be handled easily within two seconds, or it increases the risk of a crash," said Champion, citing research done by Virginia Tech.
Ford also said on Tuesday that it is working with Nuance Communications of Burlington, Massachusetts to ease the use of voice-control systems in Ford and Lincoln vehicles. The first project is one that will expand the vocabulary of commands as well as decipher the intent of the driver if he or she does not use commands such as navigation inquiries the Sync system now recognizes.
(Editing by Steve Orlofsky)