Why Ford's New Car Apps Include China's Twitter

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Why Ford's New Car Apps Include China's Twitter
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Hau Thai-Tang, vice president of engineering and global development at Ford, talks about new car apps.

LAS VEGAS — New car apps will allow Ford owners to call up their favorite music playlist or search for last-minute date suggestions by using voice alone. But the voice-activated car apps announced at CES 2013 included one "hidden dragon" surprise aimed at Chinese drivers rather than Americans.

Many Americans won't recognize the name of Sina Weibo, China's version of Twitter, among the latest car app offerings from more familiar names such as USA Today and Amazon. Yet Weibo represents a social media behemoth with 424 million users — more people than the entire U.S. population — sharing 120 million news and message posts every day. Such numbers could add up to a huge opportunity for Ford car sales in China.

Ford announced the collaboration with Sina Weibo near the end of a press event here at CES 2013 on Jan. 7. The upcoming Sina Weibo app represents one of nine newly-announced apps that include the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, Kaliki, Amazon Cloud Player, Aha Radio, Rhapsody, Greater Media, Glympse, and BeCouply.

The Detroit automaker has already enjoyed big sales in China, the world's largest car market, where car ownership may reach 300 to 500 million before 2030. Ford recorded an annual sales record in China by selling more than 626,000 vehicles to Chinese buyers in 2012.

That number still falls below the 2 million Ford vehicles sold to U.S. customers in 2012. But Ford has already set aggressive goals to double production capacity and its China dealership network by 2015 — and it clearly sees car apps in smarter vehicles as a way to win over even more customers worldwide.

Ford's car apps could end up making roads in both the U.S. and China a bit safer for drivers who can't put down their smartphones or tablets. Toward that end, Ford has begun offering a license- and royalty-free program for app developers, but prohibits driving apps from having video-rich imagery, requiring text-reading or offering games to play.

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