Ford's exclusive rights to the specialized Microsoft automotive consumer electronics platform that powers Sync have expired. Kia is the first to capitalize, introducing its UVO (for "Your Voice") system, but Ford is upgrading its offering including the addition of Internet-based upgrades.
The Kia concept expands for onboard electronic interfaces that integrate the vehicle/audio, display, and other electronics with a cell phone and applications it supports, plus music players and other hand-held devices that motorists already own.
In the process, building in costly hardware instead of software enhancement of an open-architecture interface is likely to face a price-value question for cars below the luxury level. Ford is installing a next-generation Sync on all its products including the Lincoln, demonstrating it clearly believes Sync can deliver feature content that is satisfying even for buyers of premium vehicles.
Ford is aggressively enabling new features to hold the low-cost infotainment lead it gained when it joined with Microsoft to integrate the owner's cell phone and music player with the vehicle's audio system, steering wheel buttons, and dashboard displays. And in the process, a popular option—satellite radio—might become an endangered species.
What is changing the picture is the ability to bring low-cost cellular-sourced Internet data and music into the car. Ford is enabling the integration into Sync, via such cell phones as the Apple IPhone, and two popular Internet systems that provide personalized access to the motorist's favorite content, Pandora for music and Stitcher "smart radio" for news and talk programming. Also enabled is OpenBeak, a Twitter "client" (data exchange application with a remote server that permits posting updates and reading messages).
The motorist obtains these applications from sources on the Internet and codes them to work with Sync. Although satellite radio delivers a better-defined experience and some exclusive content, there may be a significant percentage of subscribers who can accept the Pandora and Stitcher limitations instead of paying satellite radio subscription fees.
Ford soon will provide a software development kit so application developers can integrate quickly and operate with Sync's voice commands and steering-wheel controls. Based on early experience, Ford believes apps can be made available for download in just a few weeks following integration.
Further, the next-gen Sync now integrates with mobile broadband modems used for laptops. Just plug a laptop modem into the USB port for Sync and it turns the entire passenger compartment into a secured WiFi hotspot. So a cabin of laptop users all can surf simultaneously, and as with a cell phone, the modem can be taken by the driver when he leaves.
In addition, Ford is upgrading the Sync navigation component, which uses the driver's cell phone to source driving directions as part of a vehicle personalization system called MyFord and MyLincoln. Both "My" vehicle models use small digital displays on each side of the speedometer to improve the turn directions already available, by adding street names, turn arrows, and distance markers. Also available on Lincoln MKX and Ford Edge crossovers is an 8-in touch screen in the center stack, to which Ford adds an SD plug-in card with map data. That touch screen also enables touch and voice command control of phone, climate control, and infotainment systems—with more to come.
Among the forthcoming touch-screen feature additions will be a web browser. That will be a step to enable Sync to eventually be integrated with Ford Work Solutions, an in-dash “mobile office computer” that is an option on the F-Series trucks, E-series vans, and Transit Connect. At present, the two are incompatible, because Sync operates with an onboard Microsoft module and derives feature content primarily from the driver’s cell phone. Estimated time to enable side-by-side operation is two to three years.
Kia's UVO will use a 4.3-in touch screen, to be installed on selected models to be announced this summer. It will be the first with Microsoft's own speech-recognition technology (Sync uses Nuance's Naturally Speaking).
UVO permits the user to employ simple, direct voice commands without going through a menu first, and get fast responses. For example, a Kia driver could press the "speak" button while a song is playing and just say, "call 555-555-1212," without having to switch from a "jukebox" function to phone. Or the driver could just ask for a different song stored in the one GB flash drive, which holds about 250 songs in the "jukebox." Microsoft says the voice-recognition system is quickly trained to either of two voices, in English, Spanish, or French.
Because the UVO screen is a touch type, functions also can be accessed via on-screen "buttons," and the touch feature provides for additional services that may be added. Kia has a separate navigation system at this time, but work is under way to integrate it into UVO, as Ford has into Sync, and there surely are new touch-screen apps coming.
The screen, like those on the Nissan Sentra and Versa with the new low-cost navi, also serves as a display for a rearview camera.