Car giants Ford took this week's CeBIT technology expo in Hanover, Germany, as an opportunity to announce the global launch of their new connected dashboard system, SYNC. Already available in North America, the voice activated MyFord Touch interface opens up your dashboard to a whole host of connected devices, as well as promising increased road safety. Tech Digest went hands-on with the device at the show.
Embedded within the car dashboard, SYNC features a bright 8 inch touchscreen,with connectivity options for RCA cables, an SD card and two USB inputs. The screen suffers from a slight-but-noticeably present lag when pushed, but you'll be touching it very little in any case; SYNC's trump card is its impressive voice activated commands.
Pulling in the software expertise of Microsoft and voice-recognition experts Nuance, the SYNC system can recognise and respond to 10,000 commands in 19 languages. In theory, you should barely have to touch the screen in order to access SYNC's many functions. In our quick test the voice recognition software was very responsive, understanding various ways of asking for the same actions ie. "Play playlist X" or "Open and listen to playlist X" and so on.
The interface is split into four sections; phone, navigation, media and climate control. Each has its own lengthy list of associated voice commands. Syncing a phone via Bluetooth allows calls to be answered via voice activation alone, and received text messages will be read aloud by the system's HAL-like voice. You'll also be able to respond to messages by selecting from a list of presets, again adding to Ford's safety mantra that eyes on the road and hands on the wheel make for a significantly better driver.
Music controls are similarly intelligent. MP3 files are read from an MP3 player, mobile phone or directly indexed from a USB thumbdrive, and then churned through Gracenote to ensure suitable artwork and track names are applied. You'll then be able to browse your library and control playback by voice commands alone, with the superior voice recognition software and Gracenote's metadata intelligently understanding unusual characters in artist names (AKA Kie$ha) and even commonly used nicknames such as "The King" for Elvis.
Navigation controls are likewise voice operated, with the integrated GPS system making the likes of TomToms redundant. Again the clever implementation of Nuance software ensures that the system can account for variations in dialect and location nicknames; you'll just as easily turn up at Her Majesty's doorstep by saying "Buckingham Palace" as by asking for directions to Westminster, London SW1W 0. Also, the software can handle an entire address in one single voice command, rather than splitting it into street, city and postcodes, which is a plus.
Of course these controls logically carry over to the climate control system too, asking the car to warm up or cool down and it responding accordingly.
While USB inputs for music playback in dashboards aren't uncommon these days, the SYNC system goes one better by allowing you to power a mobile dongle from the port. Your car in effect becomes a portable Wi-Fi hotspot, allowing up to 5 devices to pair with it. In an age where all the kids and the dog too have a smartphone or web connected games console, laptop or tablet, having an in-car internet connection will be a god-send on longer journeys.
SYNC runs alongside Ford's other in-car innovation, App Link, for which developers can either create dedicated SYNC apps for driver's smartphones, or submit SYNC-compatible variations on existing apps, allowing for hands-free control. It has already thrown up its first gem in the shape of the Emergency Assistance feature, which uses GPS and cell data to locate the vehicle in the event of an accident, immediately call emergency services, and relate accident information to the accident controller in the language most likely to be used in the location you're currently driving through.
"At Ford, we have always believed that the intelligent application of technology can help us deliver the very best customer experience and help us contribute to a better world, so we challenged ourselves to build technologically advanced cars that make driving greener, safer and smarter for all," said Ford CEO Alan Mulally.
"SYNC is a smarter, safer and simpler way to connect drivers with in-car technologies and their digital lives."
Ford plan to roll out the SYNC system across the continent in 2012. The new Ford Focus model will be the first off the production line with SYNC built in, with Ford promising to add the new dashboard to other models soon after.
FORD SYNC: GALLERY