Third Time's the Charm for Ford Sync 3?
Ford Sync was a groundbreaking technology when it was introduced in 2007, and for several reasons. It was the first infotainment system that was largely software-based, meaning it could be easily updated and allowed owners to add new features after they'd purchased a vehicle.
It was also the first infotainment system primarily designed to integrate with portable devices. And it was the first time an automaker introduced a new high-profile feature across its entire model line instead of releasing it on high-end vehicles and then letting it trickle down.
Subsequently Sync was a huge success, helping Ford sell cars during the economic downturn and positioning the company as a tech innovator. Most other automakers followed Ford's lead in adopting an infotainment strategy focused around portable devices, although not for several years.
Then came the follow-up and a fail: Sync with MyFord Touch. In trying to replicate a smartphone/tablet-like experience, Ford develop an interface that consumers and critics found difficult to use and the system also had intermittent issues with Bluetooth connectivity and could be prone to crashing. These problems led to a rebuke of the system by Consumer Reports, a significant drop in Ford's ranking in J.D. Power and Associates Initial Quality Study rankings, and scores of unsatisfied owners.
As a result, Ford has a lot riding on the next generation of Sync, which will enter a much more competitive and mature market. At a press preview for Sync 3 earlier this week, Raj Nair, chief technical officer and group vice president for Ford, said that more research went into Sync 3 than any product in the company's history, and that more than 22,000 user comments and suggestions were taken into account to develop the new system. Gary Jablonski, manager of Infotainment Product Development for Ford, added that Sync 3 also included 18 months of research clinics, market surveys, and tech industry benchmarking and testing.
I got a chance to preview Sync 3 at the event at Ford HQ in Dearborn, Michigan, although it was a static demo and not installed in a vehicle. It's nearly impossible for the automaker to recreate the breakthrough of the original Sync, and it likely wants to avoid the misstep of MyFord Touch, so Sync 3 is more evolutionary than revolutionary. But it adds a few features that Ford hopes will set it apart from a now-crowded field.
Embedded, Brought-in or Both? Since Sync first launched, automakers' connected infotainment strategies have been split between embedded and add-on solutions, or a combination of the two. Ford is sticking with its add-on (or brought-in) approach, but Sync 3 does offer another form of connectivity: Wi-Fi. Not to create a hot spot in the car, like other automakers, but to allow for over-the-air software (OTA) updates. (This type of remote access Wi-Fi was previously available with MyFord Touch systems, but not for OTA updates.)
Previously, owners of cars equipped with Sync downloaded software updates from an owners' website and then uploaded it to the car via the vehicle's USB port, or had a dealer perform the task. Ford said Sync 3's Wi-Fi capability will make OTA updates easier for car owners.
But this means a cellular modem still isn't a part of Sync, or at least if it is, Ford isn't saying. I've found that a hybrid embedded/brought-in connectivity approach offers the best of both worlds, as with systems like Chrysler Uconnect, although this also comes with a subscription at some point.
Don Butler, executive director of Connected Vehicle and Services, told me that Ford feels that its customers get the 'highest return on investment is with brought-in devices.' But he hinted that we'll 'increasingly see embedded connectivity' and added that 'there's not a one-size-fits-all solution.'
On the surface, the most obvious change to Sync 3 compared to MyFord Touch is a new GUI that uses large touch-screen icons and a simplified menu structure. Another is that the App Link feature is more streamlined and easier to access. For example, in addition to streaming audio apps like Pandora being available in the Apps menus when they're on a connected device, they're also listed as sources in the Audio menu.
Siri Eyes Free has been added for iOS devices, and Ford said it has also improved voice recognition to be more conversational. I've been hearing that for years and will believe it when I try it – and can prove it works well in a moving vehicle.
Navigation has been updated with pinch-and-swipe maps and a search function that Ford described as more 'Google-like.' When entering characters in a search field, the system auto-fills results based on nearby points of interest and past queries starting from the first letter entered. Sync's free 911 Assist feature that dials the emergency number on a connected Bluetooth phone in the event of a crash has been enhanced to relay to first responders info on the type of crash (front, side, rear, or rollover) and the number of safety belts detected in use, and therefore the number of passengers.
Judging from my short time with the system, Sync 3 isn't a game-changer like the original system, but it's a significant improvement on MyFord Touch. After the initial gamble of the original Sync paid off in spades and MyFord Touch dinged the automaker's tech rep, Sync 3 finds a comfortable middle ground. And for Ford maybe this third time's a charm.