IE 11 is not supported. For an optimal experience visit our site on another browser.

Hands on Ford’s new hands-free technology

Ford’s ‘Sync’ technology links Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, kindred wireless and USB-based devices into the car’s audio system
Ford’s ‘Sync’ system links Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, wireless and USB-based devices to a car’s audio system.
Ford’s ‘Sync’ system links Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, wireless and USB-based devices to a car’s audio system.Ford
/ Source: Forbes Autos

Sync, Ford and Microsoft’s new automotive electronics system, does many useful things, but explaining exactly what it does may be its biggest challenge for survival. More than an audio or phone system and not a navigation system, Sync is a difficult concept to grasp — but nonetheless a promising innovation.

Giant video images of Bill Gates and Alan Mulally, the new Ford CEO, announced the system with great fanfare in a presentation aptly synced between the North American International Auto show in Detroit and the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in early January.

Essentially, Sync links Bluetooth-enabled mobile phones, kindred wireless and USB-based devices into the car’s audio system. Using buttons on the steering wheel or by speaking out loud, the driver can make a phone call, listen to a text message read aloud or have the system find and play an obscure heavy metal track whose title the driver has forgotten.

Gary Jablonski, manager of infotainment systems at Ford, demonstrated the system in Detroit, sitting in a Mercury Milan on the show floor. “What it really is,” he said, “is a computer in the car.” Sync offers consumers two ways to bring electronic devices into their Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles: Besides linking to mobile phones and other devices through a wireless Bluetooth interface, it offers a USB 2.0 port for control and charging of digital devices, including iPods, Zunes and other MP3 players and storage devices like thumbdrives (also called flash drives).

The voice system requires no training, Jablonski said, and responds to French and Spanish as well as English. He demonstrated the system reading and displaying a text message from his Bluetooth phone. It took a couple of tries to call up an audio track by “heavy metal.” The speaker volume remained low on some features and Jablonski was unclear on why, or how to raise it.

The strongest appeal, Ford believes, will be the system’s ability to mirror the phone book from a Bluetooth phone, including caller-specific ring tones, and the ability to read or write text messages as well as offer complete access to the tracks of music players by artist, title and genre information. But Sync does not take on navigation at all. When installed with the Ford navigation system, Sync changes radically and the touch screen becomes a second source of control for the nav system.

Jablonski emphasized the system’s upgradeability. “Cars last longer than electronics,” he said. One key virtue of Sync is that the system’s software can be updated and can evolve over time.

Ford has been cagey about pricing for Sync; some executives have suggested that the price will likely be around $500 or $700. Leaving out a screen and navigation features (the latter of which typically costs at least $1,500) would keep the price down. There will be no monthly fees for Sync, in contrast with General Motors' OnStar and the satellite radio systems XM and Sirius.

Sync will at first be available this fall on 12 2008 models including the Ford Focus, Fusion, Five Hundred, Edge, Freestyle, Explorer and Sport Trac; Mercury Milan, Montego and Mountaineer; and Lincoln MKX and MKZ. Ford promises Sync in its full range by the 2009 model year. This is an ambitious program, and perhaps a risky one because the company’s prestige is on the line. But dealers are notorious for their reluctance to stock vehicles with unproven options, fearing the cars will sit on their lots unsold. A wide and rapid rollout is important if Sync is to gain critical mass — and for drivers to understand it.

Some elements of Sync are already on the market in various forms. Voice dialing and control of audio and Bluetooth phone links have found a place in high-end vehicles like Acura’s TL. Claims for iPod compatibility now cover 60 percent of vehicles, but most require using the iPod’s controls, not the car’s own audio controls. Honda and Acura offer a voice control system called My Music. But voice control remains a dubious proposition in automobiles, because road and passenger noise can cut into its effectiveness (Jablonski demonstrated the Sync system on the show floor, not with noisy kids or friends in the backseat).

DaimlerChrysler takes a different approach than Ford with MyGig, a hard-drive-based system engineered by Harmon/Kardon, which it has offered as an option on the Chrysler Sebring, Jeep Wrangler and Dodge Nitro. Controlled by a touch screen, MyGig is combined with a navigation function on the same 20 gigabyte drive. The navigation, phone and audio controls are voice activated. The hard drive contains the files for navigation and other operations, but also for some 1,600 songs, presumably uploaded from flash drives (via a USB port) or Bluetooth phones (wirelessly). At $1,700, MyGig is fairly pricey for the buyers of the $18,000-MSRP cars in which it is offered.

The bundle of features drivers want and the price they will pay for high-tech systems like Sync, along with the competing priorities of older, wealthier drivers and younger, economical ones, make for a fragmented and confusing marketplace — and therefore a confusing prospect for the buyer.

Ford will offer Sync on 12 2008 models and plans to offer it as an option on all of its models by the 2009 model year.

“There is great interest in this sort of technology,” said Mike Marshall, director of automotive emerging technologies for the research firm J.D. Power and Associates. But when surveyed by specific capabilities — hands-free control or the ability to bring music from another source to the car — price quickly becomes a factor.

Most consumers are unclear on just what bundle of features they want and reluctant to spend too much money on them. Survey results often differ from anecdotal evidence gathered in focus groups. Many car owners are loath to admit their disappointment in expensive systems, if only out of pride.

The ability to easily adapt an iPod for car use is an assuring and simple idea, as is a readily available USB port to connect various peripheral devices. But the phrase “Microsoft in the car” is perhaps less so, given Windows’ poor track record with upgrades and security. In theory, Sync’s wireless capabilities could allow the system to upgrade at night, automatically, while the car is in the garage. But Jablonski said security will be robust and that upgrades would involve an interaction with the dealerships.

Sync’s very openness and ability to evolve is its greatest potential. The system could eventually scan the car’s mechanical systems and link back to a phone with information about the car’s health. (Already, GM’s OnStar offers remote diagnostics, cleverly reminding owners by email when it is time to change the oil.)

The features that turn out to be most pleasing to drivers will likely be small ones, like the ability to say “play similar” if you want to hear another bluesy song, or have your text-message “smileys” read aloud. To check out an interactive demonstration of Sync, go to this Web site.