No car has anything quite like what K.I.T.T. did in Knight Rider, but the concept of telling a car what to do verbally is still pretty cool when you see it in action. Ford Sync has been out for a while, merging myFord Touch into the whole system when it launched last year. But is the integration of voice, touch and smartphones working like it should?
Sync has always been built using Microsoft’s Windows Embedded Auto software, and after myFord’s debut, it became clear that the strategy was to integrate the two platforms with the mobile devices drivers brought into their cars. Experts and consumers weren’t convinced after finding the revamped system buggy and unresponsive in the months that followed.
Ford has since updated the system a number of times, and even launched AppLink, which integrates compatible smartphone apps into the Sync system, in the United States as another Sync add-on (which is still not available in Canada). In taking a 2011 Ford Explorer for a week-long test drive, I wanted to see just how good Sync and myFord Touch were together.
Everything seen on the touch screen can ostensibly be done through voice control. It’s broken down into Entertainment, Navigation, Climate and Radio, but this second-generation system is supposed to understand up to 10,000 voice commands, so as an example, saying “I’m hungry” or “I’m lost” will prompt the system to ask you what you need. There is also the 911 Assist feature, though it’s one thing Sync has that you hope you’ll never need to use.
For the most part, controlling everything by voice works well. Setting the heat or air conditioning is probably the easiest, along with calling out a radio station you want to tune to. Navigation is generally fine, but you have to remember to speak out numbers, like “one-two-three” as opposed to “one-twenty-three” when giving it an address, or else it just gets it wrong.
It also helps to remember command sequences to speed up the process. So, for example, saying “Navigation-Destination-Street Address” or “Climate-Make it warmer” will help you avoid going back and forth with the automated voice.
On the other hand, tapping into music on a smartphone or iPod connected to the system proved to be a frustrating ordeal. First, it interpreted “Give Me Everything” with “Heal the Pain,” and then mistook “U2” for “Groove Theory.” This sort of thing happened repeatedly, and got even worse when the sunroof or window was open. I tried having friends issue commands for songs and artists, and the results weren’t any better.
In fact, while Sync is touted as a hands-free system, I found myself interacting with the touch screen just as much as I was voicing commands. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, since the screen fills in for a traditional dash, but it definitely takes much longer than a week to get fully acclimated with the system, knowing what you can and can’t say, and what the system will ultimately understand.
What’s still missing is Sync Services, like the vehicle health report, personalized traffic updates and access to Ford operators who can help with anything from directions to answering questions about the car’s features, much like what GM’s OnStar personnel do. The lack of AppLink also doesn’t do Canada’s version of Sync many favours on smartphone integration. Streaming Internet radio via Bluetooth is nice, but it requires physically interacting with the phone, which isn’t what hands-free is supposed to be. These services are in the United States, and Ford hasn’t confirmed if they’ll be included in the 2012 lineup in Canada.
Then there’s the MyKey system that ties into Sync, which is available here. Using MyKey, car owners can program the ignition key and limit the top speed, mute the car’s audio when the driver hasn’t buckled up and a low-fuel warning that pops up with 120 km of mileage left instead of the usual 80 km. Not surprisingly, Ford has geared that towards parents with teen drivers, arguably the riskiest driver demographic.