Ford plans to launch a major update of its now-familiar Sync infotainment system next year, an update it expects will not only make it more competitive with today’s smartphone technology but also allow it to add new features to future products in order to keep them fresh.
The original Sync system was an infotainment pioneer when it launched in 2007 but has been limited in its functionality. Sync 4 will extend its capabilities using a mix of onboard and cloud-based technology that will allow Ford to offer over-the-air, or OTA, updates, much like today’s smartphones. Among other things, it could handle some recalls remotely, without forcing owners to go in for dealer service.
“The cloud connection with Sync will change the game for us,” Todd Hoevener, Ford’s director of Advanced Product Creation, said. It will make the built-in technology as powerful as today’s smartphones, Hoevener added during a background briefing ahead of the official debut of Sync4 on Wednesday.
One of the reasons why today’s cellphones have grown so powerful – and popular – is the range of capabilities they offer in such a small package. While there is plenty of built-in software, much of what these portable devices can do comes from remotely accessing things like maps, traffic information and databases.
Sync 4 will now have the same capabilities using the car’s cellular data technology. And, at times, its built-in WiFi system will allow for even faster downloads. Among other things, that will permit a vehicle to always have the latest updates when it comes to its maps – a problem many motorists experience when they’re riding around with software that can be years out of date. Traffic information should also be more accurate and cover not only freeways but also surface streets, said John Vangelov, manager of Modern Features for Ford’s digital technology unit.
If anything, the new system will actually gain a leg up on a smartphone because Sync4 will continue to have an onboard map database that it will be able to access even when its 4G LTE telecomm system is out of range, as can still happen in many parts of the country.
Along with the changes in functionality, Ford will make some major upgrades to the Sync system’s hardware. The base technology will continue to use an 8-inch touchscreen. But there will be two upgrades, depending upon the vehicle. One will rely on a 12-inch horizontally laid out screen, the other a 15-inch vertical screen that can be divided into six distinct tiles displaying different functions, such as mapping, vehicle functions and audio, simultaneously,
Like a smartphone, Sync 4 will use machine learning to understand where a motorist drives, as well as personal tastes. That could allow it to recommend alternative routes or find a restaurant matching an owner’s tastes. Along with the built-in voice assistant, the system will allow a driver to access their Siri, Google or Amazon Alexa systems to do things like operate home lighting.
It’s the OTA technology that could prove to be the real breakthrough, however, said Vangelov.
The new version of Sync will begin rolling out early next year on either all-new Ford and Lincoln-branded products, or those having “significant” updates. The automaker did not disclose which models that will include but it is widely expected to be one of the major features on the new “Mustang-inspired” all-electric SUV, reportedly to be called the Ford Mustang Mach-e, that will debut at the Los
Angeles Auto Show next month.
To achieve full functionality, products will have to get some revisions to their electric architectures to allow the system to update virtually every one of the dozens of standalone systems on a vehicle. That could include everything from the infotainment system to the microprocessors operating its engine, transmission and safety systems.
One benefit will be the ability to transfer new software should a bug be discovered in, say, the engine management system – or if Ford finds a way to enhance its performance. That would help avoid having to convince owners to go to a dealer for service, explained Don Butler, the head of the automaker’s Connected Car operations.
Currently, that’s a real problem, and one of the reasons why so many recalls have low repair rates. Since Ford could order an over-the-air update without the customer being involved, compliance would likely be extremely high, said Butler, adding that it also would “reduce the warranty expense.”
Using OTA technology for repairs is something a lot of manufacturers are looking at, and Tesla uses it regularly. Besides requiring a redesign of a vehicle’s electrical architecture, there are other problems, however, cautioned Sam Abuelsamid, a principle analyst with Navigant Research. Dealers rely on the money they make from recalls and other repairs, so going with OTA is something a number of dealer groups have opposed.
For his part, Butler said Ford has worked closely with its dealer groups on the effort. He would not say, however, whether it is compensating them for lost repair business.
Along with using OTA for software updates, Ford says it plans to send new features and functionality. One example could be upgrading the weather screen to go from a single day to a full week’s forecast.
The automaker could go even further, allowing motorists to add functions and features that weren’t on the vehicle initially. Tesla has used this approach to let buyers of some of its vehicles to increase their range. Ford officials said that a customer who might not have purchased a safety system, like blind spot detection, could later pay to have that technology activated or add new features when developed if they use existing hardware. That could create a new revenue stream.
As a result, “the age of a vehicle will only be as old as the latest software package it has received,” said Ford’s Venagelov.
The Sync 4 update will position Ford to more directly challenge Tesla on a technical basis, said analyst Abuelsamid. But he doesn’t expect the two to have the cloud-based space all to themselves for long.
Noting that both General Motors and Volkswagen have announced similar plans, Abuelsamid told TheDetroitBureau.com, “You’ll see the rest of the industry going in this direction over the next couple years.”