A car that dials emergency services itself in case of a crash and warns its driver of traffic snarls ahead: Ford Motor Co.'s chief believes connected autos will pave the road to the future.
As car ownership numbers boom in the great emerging economies, the mobile communications technology on show at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week may help unclog jammed infrastructure.
"If we do nothing, we face the prospect of 'global gridlock', a never-ending traffic jam that wastes time, energy and resources and even compromises the flow of commerce and healthcare," warned Bill Ford in a speech to the congress on Monday.
China took the dubious honour of hosting the world's worst traffic snarl in 2010, with an 11-day gridlock. And auto numbers are rising, expected to go from one billion today to four billion by 2050, Ford said.
Unusually, cars have invaded the aisles of the world's annual mobile phone show: Ford is launching its sub-compact people mover, the B-Max, AT&T showed off Nissan and BMW models and Blackberry hosted a Porsche on its stand.
All four cars have one thing in common: they are connected.
"There is an internal SIM card inside," said a BMW spokesman, allowing the car to know the traffic status thanks to data transmitted on the mobile network or to call emergency services in case of accident.
Ford offers the same prowess and more: a car that promises to call emergency services and to speak the right language depending on the country.
"In the event of an accident, that feature will actually place an automated call to the emergency services, but it will do it in the local language," said Ford technology chief Paul Mascarenas.
"So for example if you're a French driver, you're driving in Spain and you unfortunately get in an accident, the system will place a call to the emergency services in the Spanish language and give the location of the vehicle and call help for you."
Mobile communications will help keep cars on the move, said Bill Ford.
"The telecommunications industry is critical in the creation of an interconnected transportation system where cars are intelligent and can talk to one another as well as the infrastructure around them," Ford said.
"Now is the time for us all to be looking at vehicles on the road the same way we look at smartphones, laptops and tablets; as pieces of a much bigger, richer network," he said.
AT&T partnerships president Glenn Lurie said less than five percent of the 260 million cars in the United States were connected.
"The car is just another device, like an iPhone," Lurie said.
But Andy Gryc, head of marketing at QNX, an offshoot of Canada-based Blackberry manufacturer Research in Motion, said the industry was still at an early stage of the adoption of mobile technology.
"The car industry is really interested but it's very slow to move because they're concerned about the safety issue," Gryc said.
But since the industry was now taking those concerns into account, ensuring that drivers are not distracted with screens or on-line games, "it is really starting to take off," he said.
The marriage of the auto and mobile technologies could be lucrative. A study published Monday by Machina Research forecast that 90 percent of new cars would be connected by 2020, creating a 600-billion-dollar (446 million euros) market.
There is one snag, however.
"They are two very different worlds. The design of a car takes years, while in the mobile world it changes every day," said Aurore Tenenbaum, French director of Alk Technologies, whose iPhone-connected car radio Copilot equips part of the Twingo car line-up.
"So what we get in the car when it's launched is already obsolete," said QNX's Gryc.
If car manufacturers want to keep up with technology, warned AT&T's Lurie, "they'll have to continue to move faster".
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