Ford Technology Lets Workers, Bosses Keep Track

If you're a contractor, there’s likely nothing more annoying than arriving at a job without a tool you need. If you're a boss, there’s likely nothing more annoying than not knowing where your employees are. To help remedy that, Ford is rolling out new technologies, called Ford Work Solutions, that are designed for business owners who use their trucks or vans as important tools in their own right. Work Solutions will be available in fall 2008 on the 2009 F-150, F-Series Super Duty trucks and E-series vans. We recently got a hands-on demonstration of the new offerings at the Chicago Auto Show (see video), and also talked with a local construction company to see whether these features would work in the real world.

Ford Work Solutions comprise four a la carte options — although pricing hasn’t been announced yet — including an in-dash computer with broadband internet capability that can link with headquarters to access documents, invoices and more. Ford partnered with Microsoft on the operating system, and Sprint has signed up to provide broadband service for a monthly fee. A fleet-tracking system monitors where vehicles are, as well as running diagnostics, including maintenance intervals and tire pressure. There’s also a bed-mounted locking cable to keep tools safe and a tool-tracking system that lets drivers know what they've got with them.

Construction sites are already modern workplaces that rely on technology to send and receive important information like job schematics, plans and pictures. Because of that, George Wienold, CEO and part owner of Bear Construction, a Chicago-area firm that employs more than 125 contractors, painters, carpenters and laborers, was most interested in the in-dash computer with navigation, which he said would allow workers and managers to view spreadsheets and updated schematics or plans when on a job site. The navigation system would also be a plus for Wienold, since he’s already pricing GPS systems for his company vehicles.

The deciding factor would be price, Wienold said, noting that some of his 120 workers in the field are already using laptops and BlackBerrys, which can perform functions similar to the Work Solutions in-dash computer. While Ford's pricing remains a mystery, it seems likely that the in-dash computer would face tough competition from bargain laptops and the BlackBerry.

On the hardware side, two Work Solutions features offer security for tools and equipment. First, on Ford pickups, a retractable steel cable is available that could be mounted in the bed; the cable reels up into its own box. The 8-foot cable would extend through equipment like air compressors or generators, where it could latch to a bed cleat or even clamp around on itself to secure objects. Wienold wasn’t convinced about its effectiveness, though: “It will stop the common thief, but not the smart thief,” he said.

Another device is a tool-tracking system called Tool Link that works with the in-dash computer to monitor what tools are in the truck’s bed. On the prototype we saw, it could only track tools that were in the bed, not in the cab. A single radio frequency identification tag is placed on each tool. This isn't a hindrance, though, because the RFI tags are merely an adhesive sticker. A Ford representative says around 50 tags — which come in two sizes: 2 inches by 2 inches and 3 inches by 1 inch — will be included with the system.

Tool Link works in conjunction with the in-dash computer and lets users program a specific set of tools for a unique job, like for plumbing or electrical work. Once that program is selected, a list of required tools will be displayed, and the low-frequency, close-range tracking system will let the driver know which of those tools are already in the bed.

For Wienold, the tool tracking feature didn’t have much appeal. He said that while it may be useful for some home builders and contractors, for workers on much larger projects it would be less helpful.

We got an interesting tidbit from Ford representatives on the show floor who said that if Tool Link were programmed for high-frequency signals — instead of the current low-frequency version that only tracks what’s in the truck bed — it could potentially locate tools farther away, say after they’ve been stolen.

While we didn’t get to play with the prototype Work Solutions ourselves, it seems very useable and user-friendly, much like Ford’s Sync system. Will business owners bite on this new technology? Pricing will be the key, and we’ll give you that rundown when it becomes available.

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