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Car Gadgetry at Your Command

By Mike Musgrove
Sunday, December 9, 2007

Have you talked to a Ford lately?

Using a technology included in some of the latest models, an onboard computer can dial up contacts listed in your phone at your command.

Or, if you punch a button on the steering wheel and utter the right phrase, the system will play whatever music on your iPod you request. If you're packing the right kind of phone, the technology can even wirelessly download and read your latest text messages aloud as you hit the Beltway.

It's a simple thing, but there's something about being able to verbally boss your car around that really cuts down on the grind of the daily commute.

The system, called Sync, is the result of a partnership between Microsoft and Ford. After a few difficult years, Ford is trying to recast itself as the cool car company, partly with the help of this technology.

It's not just Ford getting gadgety, of course. Lots of automakers are trying to figure out how to appeal to consumers by offering up a measure of technological wizardry. The Toyota Prius comes with voice recognition tools designed to give drivers hands-free control over the car's navigation system, audio and air conditioning. Chrysler is offering a dashboard system equipped with a 20-gigabyte hard drive for storing music and navigational info. GPS-using navigation systems, for that matter, are becoming commonplace.

Most of this technology is designed to make driving easier, more entertaining, safer or more productive. But some of this stuff could also be turning us into a nation of distracted drivers. In his memoirs, former Motley Crue drummer Tommy Lee raves about the collision-detection technology built into his Mercedes, designed to keep drivers from drifting into fender benders. Lee praises the feature for allowing him to pay more attention to his female passengers.

Maybe you've seen Ford's commercials. In one, a Sync user ends up walking smack into a pesky building door that doesn't open up in response to a "Door, open" verbal command. Point being: Life ain't as easy without the Sync.

I tooled around in a 2008 Focus for a week, trying out the technology with an array of phones and music players. "Call mom," "Play artist Thelonious Monk." Bingo and bingo -- the Sync understood and performed my requests, with few exceptions. And most of the people I called while driving around Washington swore they couldn't tell that I was calling while using a car's built-in Bluetooth speaker phone.

Ford says it is hoping to build a brand as the car of choice for the gadget aficionado. The carmaker plans to have the technology in all of its new cars by the time the 2009 line rolls around.

Though it's too early for hard sales figures, cars equipped with Sync are selling in half as many days as models that don't have the technology built in, according to the company. It's not hard to see how Sync could catch on, especially in this region, which is well stocked with gadget fans saddled with long commutes.

When I was shopping for a car this summer, one of the main things I was hoping to see was a simple auxiliary jack input on the dashboard for listening to an iPod. I saw such an input mechanism a lot less often than I hoped. In the end, I kept my car and upgraded the stereo. The installer botched the job, but that's another story.

When I told people Microsoft is aiming to get its technology into automobiles, you could feel the apprehension. The PC experience is not one people tend to wish to replicate behind the wheel of a large automobile, but even my most curmudgeon-like friends were impressed.

"Whenever you see the name Microsoft attached to something, you expect to see it crash or need to reboot or whatever," said my friend Jon, a diehard car and gadget fan who came over to check out the Sync in action. "The fact that it actually does what it says is pretty amazing."

It's worth noting, however, that what Sync promises is different on practically every fancy, slick new phone out there. Not every feature you see in the commercials works on every phone, in other words.

The Sync technology is not able to pick up text messages off the iPhone, for example. And while Sync could pick up and read messages sent to a Motorola RAZR phone, it couldn't automatically get the address book stored on that phone. Music could be streamed over the Sync's Bluetooth connection on an LG phone that Verizon loaned me, but other devices can't do that trick. The Palm Treo just plain doesn't seem to work with Sync at all.

On the other hand, you don't even have to own a slick gadget to get some use out of the technology. Throw some audio tracks onto a USB memory stick, and you still get the benefits of the Sync's voice recognition features.

Ford has posted a list of gadgets and their compatibilities at a site called Syncmyride.com.

Velle Kolde, senior product manager at Microsoft's automobile business unit, says that many cellphones don't make some features, such as text messaging, available over Bluetooth connections because phone makers have never had a reason to enable that function before. He said he expects future versions of cellphones will be more compatible with Sync.

The Sync is designed so that it can be updated whenever Ford and Microsoft have new features they think are ready for the public. Owners would need to download the latest version of the software onto a USB thumb drive from their home PC, then upload it into their car.

"We have a list of hundreds and hundreds of software applications to do things our customers might find interesting," said Gary Jablonski, Ford's lead engineer on the Sync project.

Weather, local gas prices, Internet radio stations -- the sky's the limit, he said.

"Right now, we're trying to decide what customers will most be excited about next," he said.

I don't have plans to go car shopping anytime soon. But getting back behind the wheel of my own car -- the one where I have to take my eyes off the road to find a playlist on my iPhone -- felt like a slight step backwards.

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