NEW YORK – Global marketing chief Jim Farley says Ford actively will seek to improve communication with consumers on fuel-economy expectations for its vehicles, and as part of the effort will open its research to third parties to develop a mobile application to teach people how to drive more efficiently.

“At Ford, we have been experimenting in our advertising with the way that we claim (mileage),” Farley says, noting the auto maker recently chose not to advertise the class-leading rating of the Fusion Hybrid in favor of pointing out how the car is twice as efficient as a similarly sized sedan with a traditional powertrain.

“We did that very intentionally, because we thought it would be a more relevant claim for customers,” Farley tells journalists after an opening address to the New York International Auto Show. “We are changing some of our communication around fuel economy.”

Ford landed in hot water last year over mileage claims for the ’13 Fusion and C-Max hybrids and the auto maker began working more closely with the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency to determine if tweaks might be need to the federal test cycle for such vehicles to improve the accuracy of their fuel-economy estimates.

Hyundai also fell into the trap and admitted earlier this year to overstating mpg estimates on more than 1 million ’11-’13 vehicles sold in the U.S. and Canada. The auto maker took steps to reimburse customers.

Industry history is littered with controversy – and the occasional lawsuit – over the topic, but the scrutiny over auto maker mileage claims have boiled over recently as gasoline prices skyrocketed and consumers began making purchase decisions based on fuel economy.

Farley says it is time auto makers clean up any potential for confusion.

“If 92 kids in a class of 100 are best-in-class, what does best-in-class mean anymore?” Farley tells WardsAuto. “Based on that confusing environment, some companies are going to be rewarded by introducing new ways for consumers to see real-world fuel economy.”

Farley calls Ford’s “Personalized Fuel Efficiency App Challenge” a first step in that direction. Focusing on mobile platforms, app developers will have access to Ford’s OpenXC connectivity research platform to create and test ideas with $50,000 in prize money from the auto maker on the line.

Farley expects the apps to take into consideration elements affecting real-world fuel economy, such as weather conditions, terrain, traffic congestions and, especially, individual driving styles.

The winning app ultimately would enable drivers to optimize their fuel efficiency and then share their information with others.

“We need to help customers understand the concept of personal fuel economy, based on their own individualized experiences, and give them tools to see, learn and act upon all the information available to know what to expect, how to improve and even offer guidance in their shopping process,” Farley says in announcing the challenge.

Farley also addresses the auto maker’s marketing controversy in India, where a handful of employees within JWT India, a unit of Ford advertising partner WPP, uploaded a series of offensive ads to an industry website. One ad depicted women tied up in the trunk of a Ford driven by former Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi.

The employees have been fired and Farley says the auto maker has stepped up its review process for advertising.

“We apologize. It is a very regretful circumstance,” he tells journalists after opening his remarks to the general assembly with an apology. “It doesn’t change our product strategy, but we absolutely are looking at what it means to our brands.”

Farley says the auto maker will examine its partnerships with JWT and WPP, but does not say whether it plans to sever ties with either agency. JWT is a longtime Ford partner and WPP is the world’s largest advertising agency.

“Right now we are committed to our ad strategy and global execution,” he says.

Farley also says the auto maker has begun examining the “weight” it should put behind Lincoln MKZ advertising now that the quality glitch holding up distribution of the new sedan has been remedied. In recent days Ford has increased shipments of the luxury car to 200 units daily from 100, but they are arriving only after the initial volley of MKZ advertising earlier this year.

jamend@wardsauto.com