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On the road with Big Brother

October 6, 2008 |  2:17 pm

Ford Mykey Ford Motor Co., never one to get left behind in the race to control every aspect of our driving lives, has a new innovation: an electronic baby-sitter for wayward youths.

Called MyKey and available in the first half of next year, it's a programmable key that limits a car's top speed, radio volume and general fun level, at the whim of the car's owner. Ford says it will eventually offer MyKey on its full line of vehicles, but is spotlighting its use in the Focus, which it says is particularly popular with teens.

And teens are very much the focus of MyKey, which is Ford's ingenious solution to the riddle: How do you hold your child's hand all the way down the turnpike? The idea, says Ford spokesman Wes Sherwood, "is to look at safety technology from a family perspective."  Translated into layman's terms, that means parents can use the system to make sure their teenage drivers don't speed, don't forget to buckle their seat  belts, don't play the music too loud, don't run out of gas, don't drive farther than they're allowed, and, most shocking of all, don't do burnouts.

Yes, Ford, maker of the tire-destroying, 500-horsepower rear-wheel-drive Shelby GT500 Mustang, is barring America's hormonally supercharged teenagers from that most American of initiation rites.

Ford will offer parents all that spirit-breaking power by giving them the option to automatically turn on traction and stability control every time their teen drives. MyKey also can limit speed to 80 miles per hour and set a cap on radio volume at 44% of top level (wonder what the hearing aid lobby thinks about that).

If the driver or passengers aren't buckled up, MyKey makes the intermittent seat belt reminder ("ding, ding, ding") run continuously, while completely muting the stereo. And it sets off warning bells when the car passes the 45 mph, 55 mph and 65 mph marks, as well as when the gasoline level reaches 75 miles to empty.

Here's how it works: Each Ford vehicle with the system will come with two keys, the MyKey and a "master" key. The MyKey has an embedded chip that automatically turns on such controls when the car is started. The master key must be in the ignition to toggle on and off individual features and, when it's used to start the car, does not activate the MyKey controls. If the holder of the master key (we call him or her the Keymaster) so chooses, all MyKey controls can be shut off.

The technology is somewhat reminiscent of the famous "valet" key that General Motors Corp. put on its Corvette ZR1s not so long ago. That was a manual key switch that capped the engine at 200 horsepower, down from full output of 375 horses, the idea being to prevent valets and other potential joy riders from having too much fun with the overpowered beast.

Studies commissioned by Ford suggest that parents are generally over the moon about being able to put their teens on four-wheeled lock down -- "including 75% who like the speed-limiting feature, 72% who like the more insistent safety-belt reminder, and 63% who like the audio limit feature" according to Ford's news release -- but the technology brings up all sorts of intriguing, if not troubling, questions.

Will wives use this on husbands? How does an 80 mph cap prevent drivers from going 80 mph in a 35 mph zone? Will car thieves be limited to 80 mph? Will later versions come up with bluetooth shock technology through the Sync system to prevent teens from texting while driving? And most importantly, why isn't there a feature to prevent teenagers from engaging in their most favorite in-car activity of all?

-- Ken Bensinger

Awesome photoshopped image representing the abstract idea of MyKey, courtesy of Ford