Ford has updated its Sync technology and made it the basis for a new driver interface and dashboard design called myFord Touch that it is rolling out at this week's Consumer Electronics Show.
It plans to eventually add myFord Touch, which marries voice recognition, graphic screens and touch controls on the steering wheel, to models across its product line, according to company executives. The new console will first be available in the Ford Edge and Lincoln MKX. However, starting in 2012 it will also ship globally in one of the company's most affordable models, the Ford Focus -- a move to "democratize" a high-end technology that offers safety benefits, company executives said.
Gadget-happy CES was an apt place for the unveiling because the Sync technology, built on Microsoft's Windows Embedded Auto platform, was initially aimed at connecting drivers' electronic devices, such as mobile phones and music players, to a voice-command system in the automobile. In its newest incarnation, however, it aims to use interface controls familiar to consumers to connect drivers to the vehicle's functions as well, according to Jason Johnson, a Ford user interface design engineer. For example, the five-way controls on either side of the steering wheel are reminiscent of those found on mobile phones and MP3 players.
At the company's CES suite, Ford CEO Allan Mulalley seemed to relish the role of back-seat driver, climbing in the rear of a demo vehicle and prodding product managers and engineers to show off particular new features. Reminding a reporter of Tuesday's news that the company's sales increased 33 percent in December, Mulalley added that Ford has also revised its forecasts upwards. "We changed the guidance on the strength of this product," he said, patting a myFord demo console.
Displays include two small color LCD screens on either side of the speedometer, with the left-hand one showing vehicle functions and the right-hand one displaying entertainment, phone and data controls. An 8-inch touchscreen LCD sits at the top of the center stack and has a customizable interface, so that a driver can choose to display his own choice of functions rather than navigate via menus.
For connecting those gadgets, the media hub on myFord Touch systems includes two USB ports, an SD slot and RCA audio/visual input jacks. The car also can become a WiFi hotspot when a USB broadband modem is connected to one of the ports (browsing for passengers only, please).
That SD slot is the new home for navigation system data, which can be uploaded to add map-based navigation to the basic graphical turn-by-turn directions that are standard with myFord. Placing all the navigation data on an SD card also solves the problem of having to upgrade old map information.
Meanwhile, Ford is also "betting that you'll be one with your phone," as Mulalley put it, and is tapping into the booming ecosystem of applications for mobile devices.
Julius Marchwicki, product manager for mobile application connectivity, demonstrated the end result of sharing the Sync SDK with Internet music service Pandora.com, in a car outfitted with Sync (but not the new myFord Touch interface). Marchwicki used Sync's voice-recognition system to interact with the Pandora app running on his phone. He recounted how, after Pandora's developers had received Ford's developer kit for Sync, they contacted Ford and asked if they could use the radio pre-set buttons on the dashboard; they could, and those can be assigned by users to Pandora's virtual "stations".
It took a total of ten days for developers of mobile apps -- which also included Stitcher.com and Twitter client OpenBeak -- to ready their products to work with Sync, Marchwicki said. "We can now develop applications and have them in car in weeks instead of years," he added.
Marchwicki noted that Ford has a fairly complex set of rules that prevent third-party applications from doing malicious things or presenting information to drivers in distracting ways.
Ford shared the Sync API with students at the University of Michigan, among other institutions, to see what applications they might come up. One such app is a "breadcrumbing" tool for a convoy of cars following one lead driver who knows the way. As the leader drops virtual breadcrumbs along the route, directions to that point are generated and shared with following cars.
Meanwhile, more mobile app developers are knocking on Ford's door: "We're getting a lot of requests. It's hard to keep up," Marchwicki said.
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