Getting Vertical

Ford Revs up Vehicles with Advanced On-Board Communications Features

By Paula Bernier, Executive Editor, IP Communications Magazines  |  November 01, 2010

This article originally appeared in the November 2010 issue of INTERNET TELEPHONY

The smartphone, wireless technology and app stores are enabling consumers to manage their communications and access applications whenever they want, wherever they are – whether that’s at home, at work, outside, or even in their vehicles.

While texting and otherwise participating in any activities that take their eyes off the road is clearly a bad idea for motorists, a recent study on texting indicates that some folks are going to use technology while driving regardless of bans on the practice. So it seems to make sense to provide voice-enabled and driver’s dash-based interfaces for drivers and passengers so distraction is minimized. Ford is among the automotive leaders making that happen.

“We’re trying to use technology to do things in safer ways,” says Jim Buczkowski, fellow and director of electrical and electronic systems research and advanced engineering for Ford.

Ford introduced a feature called SYNC starting with some of its late 2007/2008 model year vehicles. SYNC enables Ford vehicle owners to sync their Bluetooth mobile phones and media players to their cars so they can use voice commands to call people in their phonebooks and select songs by artist, genre, album name or other parameters.

Then, in late 2009/early 2010, Ford upgraded SYNC with the 911 assist feature, which allows motorists to easily reach a public safety access point, or PSAP. The company also now offers a vehicle health report as part of SYNC. Vehicle health report alerts the driver if the vehicle needs an oil change or other service.

Ford has continued to enhance SYNC, which is standard on Lincoln vehicles and available as a $395 option for most Ford-branded vehicles, by adding a widget-type service and a traffic corrections and information feature. The former allows users to access SYNC via voice command to tap into news, sports, downloadable and voice-guided directions. The latter leverages SYNC and user phones to deliver directions.

Buczkowski tells INTERNET TELEPHONY there are more than 2 million vehicles with SYNC on the road today, the take rate on the SYNC option is well over 70 percent, and cars with SYNC turn twice as fast on the lot as those without SYNC.

In light of this success, Ford this year introduced MyFord Touch and MyLincoln Touch, which Buczkowski says creates a broader user experience. With the introduction of these features, available now on the on Edge and MKX Lincoln, motorists get two communications-related displays on the instrument cluster, an 8-inch color touch screen in the center stack, and more than 10,000 voice commands.

“This moves more in the direction of a conversational mode,” he says, adding that these features will be available on the Explorer and Ford Focus soon, and on 80 to 85 percent of the Ford line in the next five years.

The Touch-equipped vehicles also feature a Wi-Fi signal receiver that acts as an in-car hotspot. Ford says it allows passengers in the car to enjoy connectivity on their laptops or mobile devices while on a trip. Buczkowski says Broadcom and Freescale (News - Alert) are among the companies that power these SYNC-related solutions.

Ford also expects to offer SYNC AppLink, a downloadable software program, on the 2011 Fiesta, allowing owners to access and control Android and BlackBerry (News - Alert) smartphone apps with voice commands and vehicle controls. This effort entailed the creation of a set of APIs to enable apps that run on cell phones to run on SYNC. Ford is working on this effort with Pandora (News - Alert), which delivers an Internet-based radio station application; Stitcher, a collection of podcasts and news that consumers can use to create their own virtual radio stations; and OpenBeak, which helps users manage their Twitter communications.

SYNC AppLink means Ford drivers won’t “have to fiddle with the phone to run Pandora, and you don’t have to fiddle with the phone to run Stitcher.”

Ford research shows that keeping people’s eyes on the road and hands on the wheel is the best way to keep them safe, Buczkowski says.

“We want to create the experiences so you can do things with the short glances” and voice commands, he says.

Beyond just helping motorists and their passengers connect, more safely connect and enjoy music, and get directions and other content, Ford also aims to leverage technology to help save fuel by providing tips and eco-friendly routes, and to prevent accidents. The company is working on an accident avoidance solution called ABICAS that warns motorists if they have inadequate space between them and their vehicle in front of them, will pre-charge the vehicle’s brakes if the system senses they might be needed, does blind spot detection and helps drivers avoid fender benders when they’re backing out.

Edited by Jaclyn Allard