- The Washington Times - Friday, July 3, 2009

“Work truck” has a deeper meaning for Ford than merely a grunt machine that can tow and haul. Ford trucks can be transformed into sophisticated mobile offices, run by a computer brain that keeps precise tabs on fleet vehicles, driver performance and tools.

These advantages come with the Ford Work Solutions system, featuring four basic technologies called Computer, Crew Chief, Tool Link and Cable Lock. Consumers can purchase them a la carte.

Ford Work Solutions is optional for F-150 and Super Duty pickups, as well as for E-series vans and the new-to-showrooms Transit Connect wagon.

In-dash Computer

Priced at $1,195 ($1,395 on the Transit Connect), the 4-gigabyte In-dash Computer - integrated into the center stack - has a 6.5-inch, high-resolution touch screen.

Using a high-speed Sprint cellular broadband connection, the computer system can link to a main office computer network or to a home computer. The user can access files from miles away and make updates to a spreadsheet, word-processing document or accounting program.

Navigation with Bluetooth-enabled hands-free calling is another benefit of the system. This Garmin system also features real-time weather, fuel pricing and traffic updates. It can reroute the driver to a destination, bypassing traffic congestion or construction slowdowns.

Crew Chief

Crew Chief is a telematics system, providing a far more sophisticated approach than walkie-talkies and cell phones - or maybe a dispatcher at the office - to manage fleet vehicles, according to Paul Russell, Ford division field operations manager for commercial truck sales and marketing.

The location of a truck fitted with such a factory-installed “black box” - and an incredible amount of other data - can be accessed by a fleet manager via the Microlise Web site from any Internet-connected computer, including the In-dash Computer.

“It gives you the ability to stay on top of what’s happening, and it also provides you the tools to do significant analysis to help lower your bottom line and improve your profitability,” Mr. Russell said. “You’ve got vehicle-by-vehicle detailed data.”

Crew Chief allows users to manage vehicles more efficiently, for example, by quickly dispatching workers to a service call, keeping detailed safety records, and monitoring and analyzing driver behavior, such as harsh braking and jackrabbit starts. The system keeps tabs on speed, fuel consumption, idle time, odometer reading and tire pressure. It knows whether the driver is wearing a seat belt, ifan airbag has been deployed and when the truck’s next required service is due.

For a relatively small investment, Crew Chief can save companies a tremendous amount of money in fuel expenses alone, just by managing idle time and giving a supervisor an understanding about what workers are doing on the job site, Mr. Russell said.

“Are they leaving their truck running all day in the winter and the summer,” he asked, “or do they turn it off when they’re going on-and-off of the job?”

The price of the Crew Chief hardware is $380 for the F-150 and Super Duty, $425 for the E-series and $550 for Transit Connect. Added to this is a service fee of $20 a month per vehicle for Microlise’s services to manage the data and the vehicles via its Web site.

Tool Link

With the Tool Link inventory-management system, Ford Work Solutions allows you to keep up with the location of smaller items, too.. Accessing a menu of job types on the In-dash Computer provides information about the tools necessary to do a specific job. Press a job category on the touch screen and the system alerts you if any tools needed to do the job are missing.

The system knows which tools are in the cargo box via radio frequency identification asset tracking. Special tags are attached to each tool, and a pair of bed-mounted antennas scans the cargo box’s contents. They send radio frequencies back and forth across the pickup bed, reading and inventorying hundreds of items in seconds. The price for the Tool Link option is $1,120.

Cable Lock

Much less sophisticated - but also very effective - is the Cable Lock system, developed in cooperation with Master Lock.

“It’s just a big bicycle lock, basically,” said Mr. Russell.

Cable Lock is a vinyl-coated, 10-foot-long, 3/8-inch-thick braided cable. It retracts from a housing anchored to the cargo box with anti-theft fasteners. The user simply snakes it through the tools and equipment and fastens it to a clasp at the other end. The price for Cable Lock, available only on F-150 and Super Duty pickups, is $150.

For more information on Ford Work Solutions technologies, visit fordworksolutions.com.

Tim Spell is editor of the Houston Chronicle InMotion section.

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