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DEARBORN, Mich. — Ford is ramping up its effort to gather consumer feedback about vehicle design and more with a new online initiative the automaker rolled out this week.

The OEM has created what it calls the "Your Ideas" section of The Ford Story, the brand's interactive consumer Web site at http://www.thefordstory.com/. Executives want visitors to submit, share and suggest ideas and technologies they believe fit in the automotive space.

Ford explained that the pilot session of "Your Ideas" can give consumers the ability to participate in a community-based setting. They can review and rate posted ideas and track what people think about their own suggestions.

The company said ideas that receive the most "thumbs ups" from viewers can be elevated to a most-popular idea list. Those ideas are to be reviewed by Ford's Advanced Product Marketing and Planning teams.

The automaker contends that this new forum can cover the industry gamut, soliciting consumer suggestions on categories ranging from vehicle connectivity and comfort and convenience to fuel economy to performance and safety.

"Ford continues to push the envelope when it comes to engaging consumers in what's next for Ford cars and trucks," insisted Mark Fields, Ford president of the Americas.

"We are going beyond traditional consumer market research, studies and focus groups," Fields continued. "Ford is turning to the social Web as an innovative way of generating new vehicle feature ideas customers really want and value."

The automaker highlighted the traffic The Ford Story already has enjoyed since it went live in 2008. Executives indicated that the site already has logged more than 2.6 million visits.

Besides this newly created initiative, the manufacturer reiterated that the site can offer Ford owners the chance to post stories, photos and videos and make comments about the company's latest news and products. The Ford Story also has links to all of the company's social networking accounts.

"The Ford Story has connected with customers because it's a place where Ford is sharing what is happening with the company is a more open and transparent way," Fields emphasized.

"Through the site, people are telling us they feel a new unity with Ford because they can share their thoughts, stories and insights and take part in two-way dialogue with the people behind our products," he added.

Ford rolled out the new program this week to connect it with the 2010 SAE World Congress in Detroit, which is themed "Ecollaboration."

Fields wanted to promote the theme of the engineering industry conference by articulating the highlights of the "Your Ideas" section of The Ford Story.

"What a better time or place than World Congress to discuss how Ford is committed to working together toward innovation?" Fields interjected.

"This conference is one of the biggest opportunities of the year for the exchange of ideas, providing our engineers the chance to evaluate new technologies and services from companies and sources they haven't worked with before," he went on to say.

Beyond this new online endeavor, Ford mentioned that it is also collaborating with the University of Michigan on another project.

The manufacturer and university are working on what's called the "American Journey 2.0." They described it as an advanced research project to help define the next frontier of in-car communications. The student contribution is aimed at responsible development of social networking apps for vehicles which could help the OEM model future iterations of Ford SYNC.

Ford mentioned that participating Michigan students will show off their course work this spring on a developmental software platform dubbed "Fiestaware." The platform was built with the help of Microsoft and powered by Intel.

The automaker noted that student teams will compete by programming applications that showcase innovative ways to access social networks for contextually relevant data, plus share vehicle-specific information that could help others.

For the winning student team, Ford said it will make a road trip to the 2010 Maker Faire, the world's largest do-it-yourself convention. The students will drive a new Ford Fiesta, testing their new apps along the way.

In separate projects in the academic arena, Ford highlighted its strategic alliances with MIT as well as universities across the globe, including two in China, Shanghai Jiaotong University and Nanjing University of Aeronautics and Astronautics. Programs are analyzing joint work with aluminum alloys and other advanced materials.

Furthermore, Ford mentioned a strategic alliance with The Boeing Co., which one executives said has existed for the past 15 years and resulted in numerous collaborative efforts.

"Boeing, in fact, recently announced that it's ready to build its first prototype of Phantom Eye, a high altitude long endurance unmanned aircraft powered by two Ford-developed hydrogen-powered Duratec 4-cylinder engines," Ford executives noted.

The automaker also mentioned relationships with other key industry partners — suppliers — also have been enhanced recently.

Two years ago, Ford said it created the Joint Technology Framework, which provides designated suppliers special access to Ford intellectual properties so they can develop products for future commercial use.

"As a result, Ford is making significant progress in several key automotive research areas, including ultrasonic welding, alternative bonding technologies and new processes for reducing wheel weight," OEM officials emphasized.

Ford hailed consumer electronic and technology experts such as Microsoft and Nuance Communications as crucial partners, too. The company asserted that these relationships helped it build its successful in-vehicle connectivity platform, Ford SYNC, which has now become the operating system behind all-new MyFord Touch driver interface. 

"Innovation has always played a major role at Ford," noted Gerhard Schmidt, Ford chief technical officer and vice president of research and advanced engineering.

"We don't believe that any one company or industry has a monopoly on good ideas; we embrace the fact that every good idea for our customers doesn't have to start with us," Schmidt concluded.