Ford delivers telematics services without live operators

  • 28-Jul-2009 11:14 EDT

Voice (MEDIA) and phone icon buttons are adjacent on this Sync-equipped Ford steering wheel. Driving directions are delivered on driver information center display as well as by voice.

Can an automo­tive telematics system deliver the services a motorist wants without call-in centers staffed by trained operators? Eliminating the "human touch" imposes some limits, but Ford's Sync continues to­ be all-electronic yet provides features that Ford feels are most-wanted, in customer-friendly ways, and at lower cost. And the motorist gets a choice of French and Spanish as well as English.

The 2010 system, using a new onboard Sync module with GPS, adds turn-by-turn directions, traffic reports, and news/sports headlines, free for three years and for an under-$100 annual fee thereafter. These services join free 911-assist with airbag deployment and vehicle "health" (diagnostic) report—features introduced on MY2009 vehicles—and voice-activated/hands-off use of digital media players and cell phones—content available since the original system in MY2008.  

Some 2009 models with Sync were built before the 911-assist and diagnostic report were phased in but can be reprogrammed by dealers. Mustang, on which the system was available only as a dealer-installed kit for 2008-09 models, is the sole exception.

The driver's cell phone must be compatible and be Bluetooth-enabled. Ford claims that most phones work with the system, and it has lists available at the website The phone must be turned on but can be left in the driver's pocket, "the best place for it," explained Joseph Berry, Ford's Sync Director and Chief Architect.

Once a cell phone has been "paired" to the system via an onboard menu, and with Bluetooth enabled, Sync uses the cell service to access all offboard services. If the driver designates the Sync phone number as a "favorite," even primetime minutes will be free.

When the driver of a 2010 model presses the voice symbol button on the steering wheel and asks for "Services," the system opens in voice-recognition mode. The motorist also can ask for "Services" by entering Sync after pressing the adjacent phone icon button, although its primary purpose is to answer or initiate a phone call. The cellular call for services goes to a voice-activated portal provided by Tellme Networks, which determines the driver's request with voice prompts similar to those used by most companies' electronic switchboards with call-routing systems.  

If Tellme has trouble with the driver's speech pattern, it tries work-arounds, such as offering a choice of categories. Sync does not accommodate "barge in" interruptions by the driver, explained Berry; however, tests show that drivers quickly learn how to work with it, he added. Ford expects an initial minimum of 75% successful completions with newly added features, Berry said, but that "overall we expect to get into the 90s in percentage terms as people become accustomed to it."

With the 2010 system, the driver can ask for driving directions, traffic, or news including sports results and weather. Driving directions are based on street address, city, and state or a search for a specific business or public facility, plus saved locations (such as "golf course"), noted Berry.

"Addresses of businesses and places change less often than people," he explained, so people search is not available. The directions are delivered in real-time by voice and as a digital display on the driver information center. As with onboard navigation systems, Sync also monitors location of the vehicle relative to the mapped route to determine if it is further off-course than merely a roadside stop, and it provides a revised route or cancel guidance if asked. The system also is capable of dead reckoning to keep track during temporary loss of signal, as when a vehicle is going through a tunnel.

Tellme transmits requests to established information suppliers in the Sync network, such as Inrix, a traffic data source, and Decarte, a mapping service that provides route instructions. Airbiquity provides data-over-voice for the network, so voice alone is all that is needed from the customer.

The 911-assist goes directly to the appropriate switchboard, not filtered through a call center, Berry noted. "This way the 911 operator can ask the motorist the questions," he added.

Sync's operating system, jointly developed by Microsoft and Ford, uses Windows Media for Automotive, a version of Windows for consumer electronics. At the heart of the system is the APIM (accessory protocol interface module) plus the in-cabin 2010 GPS antenna, vs. the external antennas of other systems. A microphone is built into the rearview mirror.

The APIM itself contains two modules. The VIP (vehicle interface processor) is wired into the vehicle's medium and high-speed databuses so some new features can be added by dealer reprogramming through the under-dash OBD II connector.

The CIP (consumer interface processor) has a USB port, which permits driver-performed software changes to the Microsoft WMA operating system such as to enable an inoperative phone. The APIM also is hard-wired into the audio system, including to the satellite radio and rear-seat entertainment system if installed.

Although Sync costs are lower than a system with a live-operator call center, the telematics providers do charge Ford for their services on a pay-per-use basis, Berry said. The network includes Ford in the loop, so it can log the work performed for billing purposes.

Elimination of live operators is less of an issue with younger buyers, Berry told AEI. "They've become used to it in everything else."

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