A Trip to the Ford Motor Company – Part 1
GAY AND GRAY: When It's the Parents Who Grow Up and Come Out

A Trip to Ford Motor Company – Part 2

(Part 1 is here.)

At the Forward with Ford 2011 conference I attended in Dearborn last week, one of the hottest topics of conversation among attendees – many of whom were old hands at tech conferences – was how well organized it was. Ford made everything easy.

Cars and buses with color-coordinated signs arrived on time to haul us to and from our sessions. There were plenty of helpers, every one of whom had answers to questions or found the person with the answers.

Breakfast tent

Meals, served in large halls or in a tent, were tasty, healthy and well prepared and although there were speakers at each meal, there was time to get to know some of my seat mates.

And, you know how pictures on hotel room walls usually range from so garish they keep you awake at night to so bland they melt into the walls? This hotel went for Ford history. Much more interesting.

Hotel Photo

In preparing for the conference, my biggest question was this: What are you doing to help keep elders driving safely for more years?

I didn't need to ask. Having noticed that all those baby boomers are gradually entering old age, Ford is developing a multitude of design, safety and infotronics innovations to meet those needs in their cars.

One of their aids is what Ford calls the “third age suit,” much like the AGNES suit the MIT Age Lab invented, so that young designers can know what the physical difficulties of old age are.

Age Suit

The session on aging opened with a Q&A hosted by a Ford executive with an “expert” in boomer marketing. Although the questioner gets an A for effort, I've never before heard more generalizations, banalities, psychobabble and misinformation in one 20-minute period of time.

According to the woman, boomers are responsible for everything in the past 60 years including “the Sixties” (hullo – they weren't old enough. The civil rights movement, women's movement and anti-Vietnam War movement leaders were all born in the 1920s and 1930s.)

Inexplicably, three times, maybe four, she referenced disposable diapers as a meaningful boomer gift to the world (ask an environmentalist about that) and according to her, boomers are not going to tolerate the “wasteland of elderhood.”



You will be glad to know that as difficult as it was, I restrained myself from interrupting every 30 seconds to correct her.

I did, however, buttonhole the Ford executive who conducted the interview when the presentation ended explaining that boomer is not a synonym for old and that there are more than 35 million of us who are older than boomers. We buy cars too, but we are nothing like boomers or, at least, nothing like what is attributed to them by the media and uninformed opportunists like this “expert.” (Of course, she had a book to flog.)

I corrected some of her mis-statements and suggested that Ford might benefit from better research about marketing to boomers - and to those of us who are older than they.

He and I had a good conversation and perhaps, since Ford is making many good efforts to develop elder-friendly cars, I was heard.

There is a large amount of health-related technology being incorporated into Ford cars that will be of use to anyone, but particularly old people. Here are just a few being developed by Ford with outside partners:

• a multi-rocking seat to keep blood moving during long rides

• a heart-rate monitor built into the seat

• connectivity via Bluetooth for medical devices

• apps to monitor such things as pollen levels and air quality for people with asthma and allergies

• diabetes monitoring

I was surprised to learn that 20 percent of all health dollars are spent on diabetes management, and that some states in the U.S. require physicians to report hypoglycemic events to the Department of Motor Vehicles.

(Which makes me wonder how long it will be until these smart cars automatically report such events. Now there is something – safety notwithstanding - to give one pause in terms of privacy.)

In addition to health monitoring, there is, or will be soon, a large amount of infotainment through Ford's SYNC technology which was launched in 2007 and continues to expand. There is a three-part “apps ecosystem.”

Sync Slide

Built In to the cars are such services as 911 and vehicle health.

Beamed In are SYNC services such as weather, stock information, hotels, Pandora, horoscopes. etc.

Brought In apps via the driver's iPhone or Android, iPod and other gadgets.

Ford engineers explained that devices change so quickly that their platform is constantly updated. The goal is to make the car always adaptable and upgradable to what is new.

Now you may wonder, as I did, how a driver is expected to keep his or her “eyes on the road, hands on the wheel,” as Ford puts it, with all this activity in the car. That's where advanced voice recognition comes in.

I tried that several years ago with a past cell phone to be able to call by voice. It took way too much training of the phone to know what I was saying, it mostly failed and I've ignored voice recognition since then as not ready for prime time.

That is no longer so.

A Ford voice control engineer, Bridget Richardson, explained that the company's voice recognition system now understands 10,000 commands. What's intriguing about those 10,000 is that many are synonyms so that drivers no longer need to memorize commands.

In the past, for example, if the gas gauge was alarmingly low and you hadn't seen a service station for miles, you would need to say a system-specific word, like “fuel.” If you said “gas” or “petrol,” the software would not recognize what you want.

Now, close to real-life human speech can be used. So you can ask, “Where is the next gas station?” Or “Where can I eat?” In a demonstration of the speech recognition system, several of us asked the same question each in our own way and got the answer we needed. Work continues to further improve voice recognition.

Most important, with so many in-car services, is that drivers can interact with nearly all of them via voice. In one intriguing experiment, engineers tested searching for a particular song on a handheld device and on the Ford SYNC system. It took 50 seconds with the handheld; 4.9 seconds with SYNC.

This post has gotten way too long and I've omitted most of what I learned.

The two days were enlightening and enjoyable. We were kept moving from session to session, but never felt rushed. The Ford helpers, scientists and developers were smart, informative and friendly folks. The conference was extraordinarily well organized and I met a number of interesting people among the attendees.

Well, except for one. At breakfast on the last morning, a woman veered from her path toward me, peered at the name on my credential and said, “You're Ronni Bennett? You and I are enemies,” and stalked off before I could catch her name. I never saw her again so I'm left to wonder indefinitely what I did to her.

The only thing I am sorry about is that there was not time to visit the nearby Henry Ford Museum.

Overwhelmingly, it was a WOW experience. None of what I saw was pie-in-the-sky, someday, Jetson stuff. All of it exists now, is being improved upon and/or will be available soon.

If I have some reservations about all the “fun” apps and entertainment Ford is stuffing into their cars, it is likely because I have never experienced the love affair so many Americans have with driving; I just want to get there.

But millions of people will enjoy them - nothing wrong with that - and I believe the safety and health monitoring advances along with such helpful technology as the park assist I showed you yesterday will help give elders additional years of precious personal freedom we all fear losing.

At The Elder Storytelling Place today, Ralph Lymburner: Filling a Void


How would these cars tell the difference between my talking to it and talking to a passenger. I’m sure I’d prefer an answer to “Where can I eat?” from a person than a car.

Very interesting and it will continue to be, I think, watching what the car companies haul out in years to come.

Your enemy? She could have t least told you why.

She probably stopped in after a tea party.

I have really enjoyed your wonderful description of the latest technology available on the new Ford I might buy.

I would like to tell you another service that Ford provides which my husband has taken advantage of for the past 7 year.

In 2004 he had to have his right leg amputated due to complications from Diabetes.

He was sure that his driving days were over and he was very depressed about that. He still considered himself a productive and useful person and he wasn't certain how not being able to ever drive again would affect his life.

Because he had always been a FORD man they were the first people I thought to call seeking a solution to his problem.

I called the Ford Motor Co. general telephone number and briefly explained the reason for my call and I was immediately understood and transferred to the Ford Motorist Mobility Division.

I told them my husband had no right leg and was there any way in the World that they could suggest a solution to his problem. Could they? You bet!

We were told exactly what company to go to with our car and they installed a plate under the accelerator with slots in it. Into the slots goes a bar with a left footed accelerator attached. So the car is easily driven by my husband with his left foot.

The best part is that the device is completely and easily removed so that the car is back to normal in seconds when a right footed person wants to drive that car.

The cost of this was almost $800.00 and FORD MOTOR CO. paid the entire charge! It doesn't end there. When we bought a new car 3 years later they paid to have that car modified for him,too.

We have always bought Fords and will continue to buy them. We drive them for over 200,000 miles regularly and have very few repair bills.

I wouldn't trade my Ford or Mercury for any car on the market!

Thanks for all you've done to make our life better,FORD!

I'm guessing that you were at the Dearborn Inn -- a great hotel!

Fascinating!!! I suspect that I will never get to try the new technology as a new car won't be on my agenda -- especially if they cut Social Security.

I'm sorry you didn't get to see the Ford museum and/or Greenfield Village -- both are fascinating!!!

I can't imagine someone would actually say such a tacky thing to you -- she's probably thinks elders are supposed to act like teenagers.

When all the car chitchat gets to be too much, it can be turned off.

What a wonderful story about fixing up the car for your husband. And good information for all of us to have - just ask.

The woman who hates you is probably the one who had so many errors in her presentation about boomers. The Ford representative may have told her your thoughts differed from hers. She obviously can't abide constructive criticism.

Sounds like Ford will be installing stuff that will focus the drivers attention on everything except driving the vehicle!!! That does not sound like a good thing at all!!!

Nancy - that is a cool story! Makes me feel about about my ongoing distrust of Big Corp America.

Ahem - ...feel BETTER.

Sounds like the conference was worth the flight! And Ronni, you are famous enough online to have an enemy who has never even met you! Seems to me like that is why Congress is stuck right now: the Right considers everyone on the Left enemies!

@ Cowtown Pattie,

I knew what you meant,Pattie and thanks for your nice comment. Thanks for your remark,too,Ronni.

YES !!! I just knew that you would contribute something worthwhile to the conference. I am sure Ford will use your information as they develop their new cars.

All of this sounds wonderful, but it will be passe in a twinkling. Technology is moving so fast they can't get things off the drawing board before someone comes up with something better. This is an exciting time to be alive.

Most conferences can be boring so I am glad this one was done so well that you enjoyed it.

As for that extremely rude woman, a pox on her house.

Kathleen is right--it's a landmark that you ARE famous enough to have an enemy you've never met.

Probably more fun, upon analysis, than the dreary enemies most of us have in everyday life, such as office rivals who scheme against us, demanding relatives for whom we'll never measure up, obnoxious neighbors, etc.

Still, like you, we all want to know--what's up with her? Maybe she'll post.

Great pair of posts, Ronni! I especially like the fact that you didn't get all bogged down in a discussion of alternative fuels. Seriously. The human factors get short-changed too often in our fixation on the price of gas. Thanks for this info from another pre-postwar baby boom baby.

Very impressive, Ronni. Exciting to see you take charge for those of us who are old-not-boomers. Lately we do seem to get disappeared in most discussions about aging. I bet this post is circling the globe now and that's a very good thing!

Good that you were there to set them right.

Your point of view is so valuable. Makes me feel as if I got to be there myself.

A hearty thank you for reporting all that went on. And also for talking to the Ford exec. about the "expert."
You were not too long! Would love to hear ALL about it.

"Seems to me like that is why Congress is stuck right now: the Right considers everyone on the Left enemies!"

Unfortunately, the people on the left are not immune to feeling that those who disagree with them are enemies.

Ronni--Sorry you didn't make it to the museum. I'd like to see what's in it now, having last visited it in 1977 or 1978.

Great, now hypoglycemia gets you put on the "criminals" list. Remind me never to tell my doctor about having a low-blood-sugar moment.

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