12 January 2009

Ford Hopes Self-Parking Vehicles Boost Curb Appeal

As posted by: Wall Street Journal

DETROIT -- Ford Motor Co. plans to offer two Lincoln models next year that can park themselves, the latest move in a strategy aimed at improving the public's image of the auto maker.

The automatic parallel-parking system will be shown next month at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit, and will be offered as an option on the Lincoln MKS sedan and MKT crossover-utility vehicle. (See a video of the system in action on YouTube.)
The Lincoln MKS sedan will be one of the models that Ford will offer with the ability to park itself

Similar technology is already available from Toyota Motor Corp.'s Lexus division, but Ford's push reflects a wider effort championed by Chief Executive Alan Mulally to cast the company in a more favorable light. At the Detroit show, Ford also will show a hybrid version of the Ford Fusion sedan rated at 41 miles a gallon in city driving -- eight more than Toyota's Camry hybrid.

On Monday, billionaire investor Kirk Kerkorian confirmed through a spokeswoman that he had sold his remaining shares in the auto maker in a widely expected move. Mr. Kerkorian earlier had pledged his support and confidence in Ford and Mr. Mulally.

Mr. Kerkorian's investment company, Tracinda Corp., had accumulated a 6.5% stake in Ford earlier this year. The auto maker's stock subsequently plunged, and in October Tracinda began selling its holding, saying Mr. Kerkorian wanted to concentrate his investments in oil, gas, gambling and lodging. The casino-and-hotel mogul suffered a huge loss on his Ford investment.

Ford, General Motors Corp. and Chrysler LLC still have strong reputations among truck buyers, but for years have suffered poor images among many consumers favoring cars. Recent studies have found about half of people shopping for cars won't even consider one from the three companies.

In an interview Monday, Mark Fields, Ford's president of the Americas, said the company is counting on technological innovations and fuel-efficient vehicles to help separate Ford from competitors and draw more people into its showrooms.

In 2007, the company began offering an in-car entertainment system developed with Microsoft Corp., called Sync, which drivers can use to control their phone, stereo and iPod through voice commands. Ford is hoping such innovations will "make us cool in the customers' minds," Mr. Fields said.

John Casesa, managing partner at the New York consulting firm Casesa Shapiro Group LLC, said it is unclear how many customers will want the new Active Park Assist feature. "In terms of technology, the automatic parking wasn't very successful at Lexus," Mr. Casesa said. "I think the better example is Sync because it worked as promised and it's priced right."

Ford didn't say how much the option will cost. A Lexus spokesman said its Advanced Parking Guidance System costs $700.

Ford's system requires less driver input and reduces the risk of selecting a too-small spot, said Ali Jammoul, Ford's chief engineer for steering systems.

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