The newest automotive innovation from Ford has no wheels and no doors, but it has a very powerful engine. Don't bother looking under the hood, the engine behind Ford Motor Company's new Sync system is a microchip located in the dash of 12 new cars, trucks, and crossovers. While tiny, the power of this chip is immense. It is what technophiles call a "speech" engine.

Running Microsoft software, Sync's speech engine is the key to delivering a fully integrated, voice-activated in-car communications and entertainment system. This means that now when you talk to your car it will really hear you, and then do something constructive. We at AOL Autos have now driven hundreds of miles in Sync-equipped Fords and have found the system easy to set up and use, thus allaying our fears of having to deal with yet another complex and marginally useful road-going infotainment gadget.

If you're not an automotive technology guru, you might be thinking, "Cars are already too complicated, the last thing I need is something else to learn how to use that will distract me." Thankfully, Ford and Microsoft made Sync simple, and designed the system to cut down on typical driver distractions.

Here's how Sync works. When you slip behind the wheel of a new Ford equipped with Sync, whip out your Bluetooth-enabled cell phone and digital music player. Brands aren't important, because Sync syncs up with just about everything that might be in your pocket, purse or briefcase. You must first "pair" (or link) your phone to Sync. This is as simple as connecting to a wireless Bluetooth headset, and with the phones we tried, this took less than 30 seconds each.

Tying into your music player is even easier. Every vehicle with Sync includes a USB port. This high-speed link to your player enables Sync to access your music player's song list and controls. The USB link also charges your unit while you drive.

With your phone and portable player hooked into the system, the Sync is ready to receive your voice commands. First, decide what you want to control; your phone or what's plugged into your USB port. The cadence of operations goes like this: Press the "talking face" button on the steering wheel. A computerized voice responds by saying, "Please say a command." The computer's voice is not one you'll fall in love with and at this point isn't user selectable but "she" is easy to understand. We wanted to try our phone first, so we responded by saying, "Phone." Sync then said, "Phone, say a command." Depending upon whom we were calling, we either said, "Call Home," or "Dial" plus the digits of the number we wanted to call. The phone call then takes place using the vehicle's audio system. Simple.

The system was pretty darn good at recognizing what we were saying, regardless of who in the car was speaking (male or female voice, young or old). While we didn't come close to testing them all, the people from Ford and Microsoft say that Sync recognizes thousands of snippets of voice in English, Spanish, and French.

Accessing numerous iPods proved just as easy as making phone calls. With the iPod plugged in, we again start the sequence by pressing the "talking face" button. The system responds with, "Please say a command," and then you say, "USB." Sync then says, "USB, say a command." Your next response is important, because Sync searches for music by artist, song title, and genre information stored in each file's metatag. "Play Oscar Peterson" quickly resulted in our hearing one of the greatest piano players ever. Sometimes the system got confused and pulled up songs or album titles that had the same number of syllables. Imagine the surprise of hearing Iggy Pop where you were wanted to hear some classic bee bop jazz.

If you're old enough, talking to your car may take you back to the old TV show 'Kight Rider' (which is being reintroduced). It made your author fairly self-conscious. However, this feeling quickly vanished with some successful practice. Younger drivers probably won't have these issues.

The high level of integration Sync provided was impressive, it can use your phone's advanced calling features like call waiting and conference calling. Visual items such as caller ID, a signal strength icon, and a phone battery charge icon all appear on the radio's display screen. With the phones we used, Sync even "rang" with personalized ring tones.

Sync can read incoming text messages, and accurately translate emoticons and messaging expressions such as "LOL." For safety, Ford and Microsoft elected not to enable text replies when the vehicle is in motion. However, so your friends won't feel ignored, the system does include 20 predefined responses that you can send on the fly including, yes, no, where are you and call me.

Sync's capabilities aren't limited to just these functions. If you store music on your phone or PDA, Sync can also stream music files via Bluetooth. Audio can also be accessed through a line-in jack but that doesn't provide a two-way connection between Sync and the music source, so voice commands won't work. Showing how much Ford and Microsoft built into Sync, the system can also retrieve songs off of USB memory sticks and flash drives.

For the technology gurus out there, Sync utilizes a 400 megahertz ARM11 processor. The processor is supported by 128 megs of RAM plus 256 megs of flash memory. To give us a benchmark on how fast Sync runs, the engineers from Microsoft say the system whips through data twice as fast as computers with the original Pentium processor.

During our test period, Sync operated without a single computer-type crash. We asked Ford engineers if any potential failure of Sync might somehow lead to a failure of the vehicle's other computer systems, including the ones that control the engine or air bags. The Sync team assured us that Sync is not connected to other computers vital to the operation of the vehicle, so even if some type of malfunction or virus struck Sync, it would not affect anything else in the vehicle.

Ford and Microsoft acknowledge that the system will require updates, so Sync is designed for that. Additionally, engineers we spoke to also noted that Sync (in its current form) has memory available for new features and functions. Expect more capabilities and utility in future releases.

Sync is only a $395 option on the 2008 Ford Focus we used as a test-host. That seems like a bargain to us, especially since hands-free phone use is becoming mandatory in many municipalities. For 2008, Sync is standard or optional on 12 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury products. The technology will soon be available on all Ford Motor Company vehicles.

Ford makes trying out Sync easy. Dealerships have demonstration kiosks in their showrooms. Information is available online at www.fordvehicles.com/sync/.

Back in the early 1980s, Chrysler was among the first manufacturers to build a talking car. Journalists made endless fun of the computerized voice that chided, "Your door is a jar." Of course it meant the door was open but ajar came across as if our door had suddenly turned into a product from Smuckers. Automotive technology has come a long way since then, and you can expect systems like Ford's Sync to proliferate and gain even more capabilities.

About the Author:

Rex Roy is a Detroit-based automotive journalist and author. He recently released a coffee table book, Motor City Dream Garages.



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