Connected-car technology is moving so fast and in so many places, that it's not surprising to see features appearing almost out of phase with overall improvements in architecture. Sync, the Ford system that enabled hands-free smartphone operation through an in-vehicle module in cars worldwide, is introducing its third generation later this year. It was demonstrated at the 2015 North American International Auto Show in Detroit. Some of the features, such as the AppLink, are already available, but with improvements coming in an AppLink 3.0 scheduled to arrive early next year.
My Ford Touch was the second-generation system, and it brought the touch screen (happily improved in Sync 3 with a change from resistive to the more rapidly and smoothly responsive capacitive touch). If Sync 3 is equipped with embedded navigation, it will have the one-box, single-line destination entry, which overcomes the frustration with slight imprecision in entry format. When using the keyboard, the point-of-interest can be entered or address inserted. It tolerates a choice of abbreviations, extra spaces, and the like, and in our test, it was very fast. The embedded system also has a pinch-to-zoom feature, similar to a smartphone or tablet/PC.
The new color screen has a simple, "clean" interface for the "home" page.
Voice recognition upgraded
AppLink has been introduced by Ford throughout the world and, initially, it will be on Sync 3. It connects to popular smartphone apps with voice commands. This permits the user to stream Internet radio and hear tweets without the need to go through menus. Naturally this calls for improvements in voice recognition, which at present is the source of most motorist complaints with infotainment systems, according to a survey by J.D. Power. The development team claims that its evaluation of Sync 3's voice recognition is that Nuance, the developer, has significantly upgraded it to provide good acceptance of a conversational command tied into the contact list. For example, a user can say "Call Bill Smith" vs. the structured series of command words that have been required.
With AppLink 3.0, developers will be able to produce apps that can project smartphone display images, including maps with moving graphics, to the control stack screen. This is the result of an open-source initiative called SmartDeviceLink, and Ford said it is working with Internet service giant Alibaba, which is promoting its AutoNavi app for that purpose.
AppLink 3.0 automatically loads all Sync-approved apps from a paired and connected smartphone to the vehicle, and they then can be launched and controlled by voice command.
There are some 70-plus Sync 3 apps available right now, and Ford has become an active participant in SmartDeviceLink and the GENIVI Alliance (another infotainment open-source initiative, this one based on Linux). The Ford activity will give developers an easier path to release apps that can be used in more Ford vehicles.
Life 360 "locator" app
One of the new Ford apps that is likely to be popular is the friends and/or family connection, which also can be used by small work groups. All in the group download "Life 360" and if they enable sharing of locations, are interconnected via their smartphones; when their smartphones are paired, they are locatable and reachable through Sync 3. When a driver launches the app, all members names (and photos if provided) appear as icons on the touch screen. The driver selects the one he is looking for and the person's location and phone number appear, with one more command necessary to make the phone call.
Other apps likely to have wide appeal are Park-O-Pedia and "Fuel Signal." The parking app checks an area for available garage spaces. The soon-to-come fuel app will project a warning to the control stack screen when fuel level is low, and on command display nearby gas stations with the best prices.
Sync 3 also is promising easier access to the driver's choice of music using voice commands. Listening to Pandora now but want to switch to a particular song stored on your USB-connected phone? Just say the word "play," followed by the name of the song or the artist, and Sync will make the switch.
As would be expected, compatibility with Siri Eyes Free "personal assistant" is part of the package with a paired Apple iPhone. With other makers offering compatibility for Google Android, the Android Auto competitor is likely to be a needed addition.