May 12, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Ford holds tight to police market

Automaker's new offerings cater to cops' needs, wants

The Police Interceptor features the Sync system and a shelf in the trunk for mounting computers, radios and other electronics. (David Coates / The Detroit News)

Dearborn --Despite new challenges from rival automakers, the head of Ford Motor Co.'s police program is confident her company will continue to dominate the market because Ford is giving its customers what they want.

And what police departments now want is not one, but two pursuit-rated vehicles.

Earlier this year, the Dearborn automaker unveiled its new Ford Police Interceptor. Based on the same platform as its new flagship Taurus sedan, it will replace the aging Crown Victoria when production ends next year.

Some police departments were unhappy about the decision to change the venerable patrol car, which accounts for about 70 percent of all police vehicles sold in the United States. But Ford appears to be winning over some skeptics with an array of new technologies designed to make its replacement safer, faster and greener.

Now, Ford is readying a police utility vehicle based on the same platform as the all-new Ford Explorer, which the automaker plans to reveal later this year.

"When you own 70 percent of the market and you understand your customers, they tell you what their needs are," said Lisa Teed, brand marketing manager for Ford's police vehicle program. "They need flexibility, and that's what this second vehicle brings."

In developing both vehicles, Ford relied heavily on input from its 27-member police advisory board, which includes representatives from law enforcement agencies from around the country.

"We can't go out there and do a traditional market research study like we would with a retail product," Teed said. "The police advisory board has been instrumental. They are a benchmark for us. We really come to the conclusions together. And they help us validate our choices."

Through the advisory board, Ford learned that the needs of law enforcement agencies vary widely.

Jurisdictions in Southern states, for example, favor front-wheel-drive vehicles, but those in the Northeast are more interested in Ford's new all-wheel-drive option.

Some states have established tough fuel economy requirements for their public fleets, while others are more interested in reducing carbon emissions.

"Each agency is different," Teed said. "You have to adapt to that."

Second offering pleases cops

Lt. Keith Wilson, head of the Michigan State Police's vehicle evaluation program and a member of Ford's police advisory board, said the automaker is addressing the needs and wants of agencies like his.

"Ford realized they were going to have to raise the bar when it comes time to replace the Crown Vic, and they have," Wilson said.

"They have gone out of their way to listen to what the representatives of law enforcement have to say."

He said Ford has incorporated those comments into the design of its new police products.

For example, the Police Interceptor takes Ford's popular Sync system -- which allows motorists to control many vehicle systems with voice commands -- and adapts it for law enforcement use. Now, officers can control functions such as lights and sirens with voice commands or steering wheel controls, allowing them to keep their eyes on the bad guys and their vehicle on the road.

At the same time, Ford includes a shelf in the trunk for mounting computers, radios and other electronics.

"The Sync system will allow for a much cleaner cockpit, and the larger components will be stowed in the trunk," Wilson said. "Technology and ergonomics are important to officers."

The Los Angeles Police Department, which operates one of the largest law enforcement fleets in the country, had planned to hold onto its battle-tested Crown Vics before the Police Interceptor was unveiled in Las Vegas in March.

"I had a lot of doubts. The Crown Vic was one of the best police vehicles ever," said Vartan Yegiyan, director of police transportation for the department.

"But I thought it was well-designed. What particularly caught my eye was how they are making the interior safer and easier to work in. We now know that Ford is doing the best they can to make their vehicle safe and comfortable -- and that is important because, for our officers, their car is their office."

Yegiyan is pleased with Ford's decision to offer departments a second police vehicle.

"Having a pursuit-rated SUV would be great," he said. "They're very important for a number of law enforcement agencies, including ours."

While sport utility vehicles have long been valued by rural law enforcement agencies, Teed said more big city departments, like the LAPD, have been asking for them because of their versatility. Many want them for command vehicles, K-9 units, SWAT teams and other applications that require officers to carry more gear.

General Motors Co. does offer a pursuit-rated version of the Chevrolet Tahoe, but it is available only with two-wheel drive. The four-wheel-drive version is used by many departments, but it is not certified for high-speed use.

Like its Police Interceptor, Ford's police SUV will be available with all-wheel drive and will be pursuit-rated, Teed said.

"It goes back to understanding the demands of our customers," she said. "This is something they have been asking for because they're having to do more with less."

Wilson would not comment specifically on Ford's new police SUV because the company has not officially announced it yet, but he agreed that two vehicles are necessary to address police needs.

"With the diversity of responsibilities that law enforcement agencies have, different vehicles are required," he said. "Otherwise, there are always trade-offs."

Shared platform saves effort

Building the new police SUV off the same platform as the Explorer, which shares a common architecture with the new Police Interceptor, means many of the parts will be interchangeable between the two vehicles, Teed said. It also should make it easier for departments to service both vehicles.

Using shared platforms is a major part of CEO Alan Mulally's "One Ford" strategy, which targets eliminating duplication of effort at all levels of the company. In this case, Teed said, it helped reduce the engineering cost of both vehicles and allowed Ford to negotiate more favorable terms with suppliers, who will be getting bigger orders for common parts.

She said Ford's work on these police vehicles will benefit its consumer products as well.

"This required a big investment in research and development," Teed said.

"There are going to be shared learnings that come from all of this."

The police program pays other dividends for Ford, too.

Each year, law enforcement agencies in the United States purchase about 75,000 police vehicles. With 70 percent of that market, that translates into some serious sales for Ford. But the real benefit comes on the marketing side.

Teed said each of those police cars is a rolling advertisement for Ford, which is why its continued investment in the police segment is so important.

"Their job is to protect and serve us," Teed said. "Our job is to serve them."

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Interior of Ford's new Police Interceptor