OAKVILLE, Ontario—The auto industry is getting fired up about wireless technology in cars and trucks but it's not just for connecting passengers' laptops or streaming Internet radio stations.
Here at an assembly plant outside Toronto,Ford Motor Co. is using Wi-Fi transmitters to load customized phone and entertainment features into its Edge and Lincoln MKX crossovers as the vehicles chug down the production line.
The Dearborn, Mich., company is beaming software wirelessly to the vehicles to set up their information and entertainment systems for various markets: One Edge bound for the U.S. gets Ford's 911 emergency assistance package while one to stay in Canada gets the option to speak in French and offers traffic information about Canadian roads.
Ford's coming Explorer sport-utility vehicle and Focus compact car will have similar technology when they launch later this year.
But transmitting software for radio and phone systems may be just the start of the customization possibilities at car factories and dealerships. Cars could be programmed wirelessly for individualized options ranging from power-seat preferences to how quickly the transmission shifts gears—all without the auto maker having to spend money on variations of the same parts.
"Auto makers always wanted customization but they didn't want to pay for it," said Ronald Harbour, an expert on auto manufacturing for the management consulting firm Oliver Wyman.
These tailored cars could attract a new generation of buyers who want to pre-order their cars rather than pick a prefabricated one off the dealer's lot. Much like people personalize their iPad or Android phone with "apps," car buyers could select an apps package for their new vehicle.
These features could be loaded into cars or turned on at the dealer or even in the owner's driveway, depending on which options a customer decides to pay for, according to a former Ford executive.
Such a setup could answer an important riddle for auto makers: How to reduce the number of uniquely assembled vehicles to save money even as they offer customers vehicles that are as personalized their smartphones.
Beginning at the Oakville plant, Ford expects to save millions of dollars by using a common though programmable electronic part to make available more than 90 options.
The production-line Wi-Fi innovation aids the company's plans to expand its voice-activated system, originally known as SYNC and now incorporated into an expanded MyFord Touch interface, around the world.
The system is based on a Wi-Fi device that Ford built into the vehicles for another purpose: to provide Wi-Fi "hotspots" in the cars so passengers using laptops or other devices can tap into the Internet while on the road. To use their vehicles to provide mobile Web connections, owners with Wi-Fi equipped cars need to buy a USB broadband card.
"To be honest, we did not have this in mind" when Ford designed Wi-Fi for its vehicles, said Sukhwinder Wadhwa, global platform manager for SYNC. The assembly-line application came after Ford discovered that the expense of creating dozens of different entertainment and information modules was cost-prohibitive.
The installation process in the Oakville plant is hands-free, reducing labor costs without slowing assembly-line speed, company officials said. So far, the error rate in loading the software is less than 1%, said Mr. Wadhwa.
Several other car makers plan to offer Wi-Fi hotspots in their vehicles, including General Motors Co., Chrysler Group LLC and Volkswagen AG. But so far, none are using the technology to customize their products in the plant as Ford now does.
"The industry is moving toward using Internet access to integrate all of the technology in the car and keep it fresh," said Christine Williams, of Autonet Mobile, which supplies GM, Chrysler, VW and Subaru, the Japanese brand made by Fuji Heavy Industries Ltd.
Some auto makers remain cautious, citing tepid consumer demand and a worry over safety issues. "As entertainment technology expands it becomes increasingly important to manage distractions that can occur when operating vehicle entertainment systems," Toyota Motor Corp. spokeswoman Mona Richard said in an email. Toyota and its luxury Lexus brand don't offer factory-installed Wi-Fi.
Such systems do pose challenges: Vehicles with Wi-Fi risk opening up a car's electronics to hackers and the like. "Once you open up a car to be provisioned, everyone is going to try to break in," said David McNamara, an automotive consultant and former Ford researcher. "That's why infotainment's first. The risk of a virus there is not something that could affect the entire vehicle."
And unlike a ding in the sheet metal, customization of electronics might be susceptible to errors unseen until, say, a buyer in the U.S. ends up with a car that suddenly starts displaying maps in Mandarin. Ford officials said they have quality checks inside the plant that would reveal any such defect.--