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The June 17, 2010 Issue Provided by System Dynamics Inc.
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Ford SYNC--"A Simpler Way to Connect"

Eight years ago, we wrote about the craziness of having to read a manual to figure out how to operate our new car radio. That problem paled in comparison with another car we read about at the same time, which came with "a set of instructions for the owner to hand a valet, so that a bewildered parking attendant can figure out how to move the car!".

Since that time, we've entered the age of devices like iPhones and iPads which many people have embraced as part of their lives. Everyone wants to be connected everywhere.

MyFord Touch Driver Connect Technology -- Using Personal Technology

Doug VanDagens, Ford --> Click for larger pictureFord Motor Company believes they have a solution to the increasing complexity of a car's communications, navigation, entertainment and control technologies. At CES in January we met with Doug VanDagens, Director of Ford Connected Service Solutions to talk about Ford's approach to helping drivers stay connected.

At CES Ford announced MyFord Touch "Driver Connect Technology," which aims to:

  • Facilitate drivers' use of their personal electronics in their cars.
  • Integrate control of personal devices with those native to the car, like climate control.
  • Do it in a way that is simple and intuitive to use.
  • Do it in a way that puts the highest premium on driver safety.

Ford SYNC control panel --> Click for larger pictureFord's SYNC system (based upon the Microsoft Auto operating system) is the integrated operating system for Ford vehicles. MyFord Touch is a user interface layered on top of SYNC to replace many of the car's traditional buttons, knobs and gauges. Inputs can occur in multiple ways including voice command, touch screens and five-way buttons like those found on today's consumer electronics devices. The system includes a media hub with multiple inputs and a multifunction touch screen which can display entertainment, navigation, phone and climate control information.

Ford expects users to connect their own personal devices, such as mobile phones, MP3 players, USB drives and SD cards when in their car. Connectivity includes a USB-connected broadband modem for in-car Internet access and a Wi-Fi hot spot for passengers.

Doug emphasized that safety is a primary concern, so Ford's goal is to make the experience as distraction-free as possible. For example, the in-dash touch-screen display can only be used for video and Web browsing when the car is in Park.

Ford SYNC Dashboard --> Click for larger pictureThe screens can be personalized for different drivers. Settings can be downloaded to a USB drive and imported into another MyFord equipped vehicle to transfer driver preferences.

The service allows drivers to operate most MP3 players, Bluetooth-enabled phones and USB drives using voice commands. Additional features include turn-by-turn navigation, realtime traffic updates and business search tools.

With a capable electronic base in place, Ford can add features such as asking the car to suggest the most fuel-efficient route. It does so by using historical data to determine roads that are most likely to let drivers maintain a consistent speed, thus cutting down gas consumption.

The SYNC in-car communications and infotainment system is standard on all 2010 Lincoln models and available on select 2010 Ford and Mercury models.

GM OnStar - Focus on Emergency Support

A recent NY Times Article drew an interesting comparison between Ford's approach with SYNC and General Motors's OnStar strategy. The article points out that although the systems handle many of the same functions, the original intent of the two systems was quite different. OnStar was designed as an emergency response system; SYNC's impetus was to entertain and inform.

The communications mechanisms used by the two companies illustrate the philosophical split. While Ford relies on using the driver's own mobile phone as the communications link, GM believes a built-in phone is essential to its system. Some of the trade-offs have to do with cost and upgradeability. The useful lifetime of a car can be much longer than that of a mobile phone, and GM has had to deal with several generations of technology shifts and obsolescence.

The pricing models are also quite different. As the Times article pointed out: "SYNC is standard on Lincolns and on the highest trim level version of each Ford and Mercury model. Itís a $395 option on most other models. Customers must elect to activate the service, and the subscription is free for three years. After that, car owners can continue their full-service subscription for $5 a month....OnStar is standard on most G.M. and all Saab cars. The first 12 months of service are free. After that, service is $18.95 per month for a basic package or $28.90 a month" for an expanded package of information services.

When GM first introduced OnStar in 1996, few mass-market consumers were comfortable with mobile phones and digital media technologies. Now PCs and broadband are in most homes, navigation systems in most cars, iPods in many people's hands, and smartphones growing fast. Ford's approach seems better tuned to the times.

Since we both drive older cars and don't buy new ones very often, we haven't had the opportunity to test either of these systems. Until we actually experience it, we can't reach any conclusions about whether the Ford system we saw at CES is as intuitive as it appeared, and whether it accomplishes its goal of making it easier for drivers to do the things they were going to do anyway--like listening to music and making phone calls--with less distraction than they currently experience.

We'd welcome comments from any readers who have had personal experience with these systems.

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