The award winning Ford SYNC voice controlled, in-car entertainment, mapping and mobile connectivity system is coming to Europe from 2012. With Ford aiming this squarely at the mass market, it's the Ford Focus that's been chosen as the flagship vehicle to the hit our shores with this state of the art hands- (and even eyes-) free technology. The big question, of course, is whether or not it's worth having and from Pocket-lint's hands-on with Ford SYNC at the IFA Global Press Conference in Alicante, the answer to that is a big yes.
"How can someone access their mobile, music and data and remain connected but still stay focused on the road," was the question the company posed to itself according to Ford's user interface design manager, Jason Johnson. "Voice control," apparently, is the answer.
Ford SYNC works in conjunction with an 8-inch touch-sensitive screen, embedded centrally in the car's dash, known as MyFord Touch, which displays four major hubs - climate control, media player, navigation and mobile phone. While you or your passengers can browse through and select the options within, the highlight of the interface is that it understands 10,000 voice commands, so that you can keep your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road.
Instead of having an HDD on board, as the name suggests, the SYNC system synchronises with the contacts book and media stored on your mobile phone which you can connect by RCA cable, USB or over Bluetooth. Without having to reach down for your mobile, you can then get the system to play music, make and recieve phone calls, read SMS and even play video on the Touch screen as well.
The idea of SYNC is that it's device agnostic but, currently, not every mobile can offer all the functions. That said, just about all handsets offer some degree of compatability and it's not a matter of having a top smartphone or not. Our demonstration was with an old Sony Ericsson which gave as much as any other you could find. Take a look at the MyFord website to see how your handset matches up.
Naturally, any of your passengers can connect to the system over Bluetooth but there's also something that SYNC can give back as well. Plug your mobile broadband dongle into one of the USB ports, located just under the driver's arm rest, and the car can create of Wi-Fi hotspot complete with its own WEP encrypted password. There's no guarantee you'll get a 3G signal for it to work while you're on the move which is one of the reasons why Ford has left that ball firmly in the court of your operator.
From our brief play, the system worked better than just about any voice recognition system we've seen so far. That part of the equation has been develped by voice specialist Nuance and it's activated by a touch on a lever under the right hand side of the driver's wheel. There were no mistakes whatsoever in the roughly 10 commands we issued it and it responds to a variety of languages and accents which Ford is looking to add to as the system makes its way across the globe. What's even better is that it will even learn your voice in the background as you use it which certainly beats any tedious training sesssions. Perhaps the real test of the way it works though, is when you've got kids screaming in the back as you try to get SYNC to make calls or play music but we'll have to leave that test for a full review.
The music side of things is powered by Gracenote which means you get album art copied over on synchronisation which you'll see on the screen of the MyFord Touch. Thanks to the App Link system - a feature which extends functionality of a burgeoning group of iOS, Android and BlackBerry apps that you can use with SYNC - you can even access your Pandora account where you'll be able to give songs the thumbs up or down by voice as well. That may not be much use to those outside the States but it seems clear that the likes of Spotify are to come too and high up the list as well.
Those running Windows Phone 7 need not fret either. With Microsoft computers inside the ride and running the show, Johnson made it clear that the App Link system would be available for those smartphones as well shortly. Quite what's to come in the world of other apps remains to be seen but one would be surprised if the big players like eBay, Google and Amazon don't get in on the action soon.
The final big feature of the Ford SYNC system is one of safety. Emergency 112 will automatically call the local emergency services on your behalf as soon as the air bags are deployed or the fuel line is cut off. SYNC will warn you that it's about to - just in case there's been an error - and, unless you override it, it will detect where you are via GPS, select the correct language and speak to the local operator to tell the services where you are, what car you're in and who you are as well so that the cavalry can come to the rescue. Perhaps the part worth considering here is whether or not the system will still managed to operate in the event of a really severe collision. However, with all the SYNC circuitary central within the car, it'll certainly have a good shot.
In the future, Ford is looking at the idea of adding a web browser and a way to upload your preferences over your Wi-Fi on your home network for when your car is docked in your garage or driveway. For now, any routes, waypoints or other navigation can be pre-loaded via the MyFord website.
SYNC will be arriving in 2012 but there's no price point as yet. A similar version came out in the States, without the MyFord Touch screen, as a $395 option, so don't expect it to be cheap but the seriously good news is that there will be no subscription charge for any of it throughout the entire life-cycle the car.
Fancy a spin in a voice sensitive car or does it all sound like the beginnings of lethal distraction to you? Let us know in the comments.