Ford's New Tech Turns Your Truck into a Mobile Office

As Detroit ground to a halt last year, one major automaker fared much better than its rivals. Under the leadership of Alan Mullaly, Ford (F) not only avoided the bankruptcy that crippled General Motors and Chrysler but it now looks poised for the unthinkable: profitable growth. Every month this year, Ford has increased its market share, Mullaly said recently on CNBC. He spoke about the need for Ford -- along with the rest of American business -- to lead the world in "innovation, design and technology."
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Here's one clear example where Ford is dusting its Detroit rivals: in-car technology. To get an up-close look (see video below), DailyFinance last month took a test drive with Bill Frykman, business development manager for Ford Work Solutions, one of the company's flagship technology initiatives, which turns your vehicle into a mobile office.

Ford Work Solutions, which won a International CES (Consumer Electronics Show) 2010 Innovations Design and Engineering Award, is an in-dash computer that features mobile email, remote desktop connectivity and even RFID tool tracking -- all from the cockpit of an equipped Transit Connect, the company's compact van (dashboard pictured).

"Ford Work Solutions is all about delivering productivity right in the vehicle," Frykman says. "It really is advancing the capabilities of the commercial user in a vehicle like this." The technology is also available on the Ford F-Series Super Duty and F-150 pickup trucks, and the E-Series van.

Print an Invoice from Your Mobile Office

Combined with a wireless keyboard -- bluetooth, natch -- and printer, small-business owners can provide customers with professional invoices and other business documents. Ford has also partnered with LogMeIn, a company that provides remote desktop access, to allow small-business people to access their work files from their vehicle.

"Now, you can acess your work computer in your office, open a file, print an invoice or a document in the truck and save it remotely," Fryman says, adding that mobile browsing and other applications are disabled while the truck is in motion, for obvious safety reasons.

The system also offers a feature called Crew Chief, which allows fleet owners to keep track of their vehicles as they're driven around a geographical area. While employees may chafe at the idea that their boss knows their every move, this technology has proven to help track lost or stolen vehicles. It even monitors the vehicles maintenance gauges remotely, to alert the boss if the truck needs service. Collectively, these features promise to be a boon to small-business productivity -- and they're likely to become standard in the next few years.

Tag Your Tools, Don't Leave Them Behind

Perhaps most impressive, however, is Ford's use of RFID, for radio frequency identification, chips that allow small-business owners to keep track of their tools, and not leave them behind at a work site. In essence, you tag your tools with the small, lightweight chip, and if you leave any of them behind, the system alerts you. This innovation alone could possibly save small- business owners millions in tool replacements.

"The plumber or the electrician can look at the in-dash computer and see a list of tools that he has and a list of tools that he's missing," Frykman explains.

At a time when consumers seem to be flooded with technological stimuli that serve only to distract or complicate life, Ford says it's taking a rigid stance on how these tools fit into the automobile: The end goal must be to improve productivity. "Technology for technology's sake doesn't deliver any value," Frykman says. "It's making the vehicle experience more dynamic, more productive, safer -- that's the benefit of technology."

For years, it seemed like the Detroit automakers were being lapped by their European and Asian counterparts. By aggressively embracing technology, however, Ford is showing that it doesn't intend to take a backseat to anybody on innovation. And that bodes well for America's most famous car manufacturer, as well as small businesses around the country.

Now, if only Ford can put this nifty tech in an F-150 Raptor...

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