There will come a day when an avatar – a virtual representation of a human being – will adorn your vehicle’s instrument panel and act as an electronic personal assistant, Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally predicts.

Mulally, during his keynote address Thursday evening at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, demonstrates what the technology could look like in a video clip featuring an Avatar named Eva, who “lives” on the IP of a futuristic Lincoln.

Eva is able to understand conversational speech and acts as the liaison to the vehicle’s connectivity and infotainment features.

While several auto makers are working on perfecting conversational speech for their in-vehicle multimedia systems, the technology is still a ways off, says Doug VanDagens, director of Ford’s Connected Services Organization.

“There are a number of things that go into natural voice, and nobody now has very high accuracy,” he tells Ward’s. “It will probably become available in a couple years or maybe even 18 months.”

The IP on which Eva is displayed also is fully configurable, allowing drivers to reposition controls such as the fuel gauge and speedometer.

Although Ford says such technology is several years away, it provides a glimpse of the capabilities of Sync, the auto maker’s in-vehicle trademark multi-media system. It also demonstrates the status of Ford’s human-machine interface development.

Such technology is found on the new ’10 Ford Fusion and Mercury Milan Hybrids. Both vehicles feature a unique instrument cluster that provides real-time information and “coaches” drivers on how to adjust their behavior for maximum fuel efficiency.

Nearer term, Ford will offer Sync globally. Until now, the technology was exclusive to North America.

Sync will go global in 2010, starting in Europe, before migrating to the Asia-Pacific region and Australia.

Meanwhile, Mulally reveals details of the latest Sync technology, the new “Traffic, Directions and Information” feature.

Traffic, Directions and Information integrates voice-recognition software, global-positioning technology and a customer’s Bluetooth-capable phone to provide hands-free access to personalized traffic reports, turn-by-turn driving directions and up-to-date information including business listings, news, sports and weather.

Information about the location and severity of accidents, new road construction and heavy congestion is sent to a driver’s cell phone as text messages. These messages can then be broadcast into the vehicle, via Sync, as if spoken.

Turn-by-turn directions also will be displayed on the vehicle’s radio dial.

In addition, Time, Directions and Traffic can be personalized to deliver sports, news and weather reports.

Launching this summer, Traffic, Directions and Information will be available on all ’10 model-year, Sync-equipped Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles, with no monthly subscription fee for three years. After three years, Ford says it will charge a nominal subscription fee, which it has yet to determine.

In addition, Mulally announces Ford has formed a partnership with electronic-retailer Best Buy to help build Sync awareness and provide technical support through its Geek Squad.

“It’s through partnerships like Best Buy, Microsoft Corp. and countless others that we are building new roads, connecting more people than ever, and making connectivity technology affordable for millions, today and into the future,” Mulally says.

bpope@wardsauto.com