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Talking Down Roadkill?: Ford Expands SYNC for Drivers Unable to Leave the Internet at the Curb

The next generation of Fords will feature a number of new voice- and touch-activated controls

LAS VEGAS—Pretty soon, car buyers will make their decisions about which vehicle to buy based not on styling, horsepower or color but rather on software. That is the vision that Ford Motor Co. CEO Alan Mulally laid out here Thursday at the Consumer Electronics Show  (CES) when he and several company executives demonstrated new components of Ford SYNC technology that will allow drivers hands-free access to modern necessities, including text messages and the Internet.

SYNC—an in-car communications and entertainment system that Ford and Microsoft announced at CES in 2007—includes a flash memory–based system and lets drivers operate a number of digital devices, including MP3 players and mobile phones, using voice commands or buttons on the steering wheel or radio/navigation console.

Ford is adding a number of touch-screen and voice-controlled features to SYNC, with the goal of getting more Ford drivers to use the service's voice-command capabilities. (Currently, 63 percent interact with SYNC regularly via voice, Mulally said.)

Voice commands are to the car what the mouse has been to the PC, simplifying access to information, said Jim Buczkowski, Ford's director of global electrical and electronics systems engineering, during Thursday's keynote. With applications and services such as Facebook and Twitter gaining priority in many people's lives, Ford added MyFord Driver Connect to its SYNC service to retrieve information from these and other Web sites and software via voice commands or steering wheel controls, thereby hopefully minimizing driver distraction.

Another of Ford's goals is to reduce the number of voice commands needed to activate SYNC's features. Working with voice-recognition software–maker Nuance Communications, Ford is also adding voice command controls that have real-time adaptive learning capabilities allowing the system to recognize a driver's particular speech inflections or accent. SYNC will even support the Message Access Profile, which uses Bluetooth to read text messages from a variety of different smart-phone brands through a car's audio system.

LCD touch screens will dominate the car's center console, according to the cockpit layout adopted by Ford and several other major car companies, including General Motors and Toyota. Ford's version of this is MyFord Touch, which Buczkowski says will be available in its cars later this year. Ford will introduce its new MyLincoln Touch center console in the 2011 Lincoln MKX (all touch, no dials) next week. MyFord Touch will be available first on the company's 2011 Edge and 2012 Focus models.

Mulally said that Ford kept the promise made at CES a year ago that the carmaker would have one million SYNC-equipped vehicles on the road by the third quarter of 2009. "More and more customers are saying that SYNC was a factor in their decision to buy a Ford," he said.

Meanwhile, driver distraction has become a growing source of concern as people increasingly take their multitasking mind-set with them when they get behind the wheel. The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) determined as far back as 2003 that cell phone use—both phone calls and text messaging—while driving causes hundreds of thousands of car accidents and hundreds of crash-related deaths.

Ford assured CES attendees on Thursday that it is well aware of the problem. In just one of the many experiments the company has carried out in its dome-shaped VIRTTEX simulation module, Ford determined that it takes a driver 30 seconds to manually pull up a song on an iPod, during which the driver's eyes leave the road several times. With SYNC's voice commands, the same procedure takes five seconds and the driver does not have to actually look at the iPod.

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