Hands-free tailgate coming on next Ford Escape SUV

— -- Ford Motor will introduce what's called a "gesture-based" tailgate control on the redesigned 2013 Escape SUV, on view at the Los Angeles Auto Show later this month and in showrooms next year.

The Escape system, which Ford plans to announce Tuesday, lets anyone who has the car keys kick a foot under the back bumper to hoist the tailgate. A repeat gesture closes it. The Hands-Free Lift Gate will be pitched as the perfect solution when you approach the vehicle with both hands full of groceries or parcels, and can't fish the remote-control key fob from your pocket or purse.

Only someone who has the key fob can make it work. It takes a specific kicking motion so that your pet, for instance, won't activate it by running under the bumper as you stand there with the keys.

Safeguards lock out the operation when the vehicle is in motion.

It will be part of an optional technology package, which Ford hasn't priced. Ford expects buyers to continue replacing bigger vehicles with smaller ones to save on fuel as well as purchase price, insurance, taxes and other vehicle costs. And Ford is sure consumers will want the same deluxe features they were used to.

"It's absolutely true," says Rebecca Lindland, auto-industry analyst at IHS Automotive. "It's a good example of something that ordinarily would be a premium-brand feature, but we're seeing it on midpriced cars and trucks," she says.

Ford ( F) is the first to try it on a mainstream U.S. model. Audi will have the system as a hands-free trunk opener on the S8 sedan coming to the U.S. next summer as a 2013 model. Ford plans to roll it out for several models after Escape, starting with the C-Max hybrid.

New to cars, gesture-based control is old hat in video games. Wii is a pioneer. You don't roll a bowling ball or swing a baseball bat, you just go through the motions while holding a controller. With Xbox 360 Kinect, no controller is needed: Just steer that on-screen race car by pretending to hold a wheel and turning it.

More than just a convenience, Ford hopes the feature will distinguish Escape in a small-crossover SUV market awash with new models. Honda's popular CR-V was overhauled and is slated to go on sale late this year. Hyundai's Santa Fe gets a thorough makeover next year. Toyota's RAV4 is due for an update.

Automakers, which report October sales today, are investigating other uses of gesture control. It could minimize distractions if, for example, a driver could turn up the heater with a hand motion rather than by adjusting a knob.