Ford's SYNC May Transform Car Driving as We Know It

Communications and Entertainment System Is Innovative, but Is It Also a Dangerous Distraction?

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NEW YORK (AdAge.com) -- It took me exactly one block of travel in the Ford Fusion Hybrid to realize how cool the screen was on the SYNC system I was testing. It took me one more block to realize I'd better pull over and program the thing -- or I'd have to explain dents in the car to the Manhattan dealership that kindly loaned me the car.

CHECK THOSE BATTERIES: SYNC can be paired with multiple cellphones but will only work if the phones are working.
CHECK THOSE BATTERIES: SYNC can be paired with multiple cellphones but will only work if the phones are working.
In a word, SYNC is fascinating, and it's only the beginning of what will become a revolution for both drivers and advertisers. It's a factory-installed, in-car communications, information and entertainment system similar in scope to BMW's ConnectedDrive. But as neat as it is, it can be a distraction. I quickly programmed my cellphone into the system, allowing me to make hands-free, voice-activated calls by speaking through the vehicle and listening through the car speakers. SYNC also interprets texts and uses the voice-over technology to deliver the message.

Next, I programmed my home address into the navigation system. I live about 75 miles north of New York City in the small upstate New York hamlet of Highland. On the main drag approaching town, you can't turn left onto my street -- although the SYNC system told me to do so. Instead, what you must do to reach my house is to go one street up and turn left, turn left again and left one more time to come in the backside of my road.

As soon as I drove past my street -- where SYNC was telling me to turn -- and then turned left on the next street up, SYNC readjusted and its dulcet tones gave me the new (now correct) directions.

As I drew closer to my house, I also punched in a search for restaurants to see if my favorite, hole-in-the-wall pizza joint would pop up. It did, and this is where the future potential of these car technologies come in -- marketers buying media.

Just as a simple Google search on a laptop produces search-engine results, automakers say the day is close when the same will happen to location-based searches through their embedded in-car systems. Ford's SYNC is already equipped with Microsoft's Bing.

"We're open to the possibilities," said Alan Hall, Ford's technology communications manager. "There's an opportunity for a lot of innovation in the space."

In some ways, it's already happening. Mr. Hall himself was driving to work in Detroit one morning listening to local radio station WRIF. Like many cars, his Ford has Radio Data System technology, a fancy phrase for the digital readout of a station's call letters, tagline and whatever song was playing. But as he drove, Mr. Hall noticed a crawl going across the screen that read "Check out motorcitydailydeal.com."

This was a third-party ad run through the radio station. Now imagine the possibilities with eager marketers willing to buy media through these in-car entertainment systems. "But," Mr. Hall cautioned, "we want to make sure the content that we help bring into the car does not distract the driver."

Even so, the opportunities for more enhanced on-the-go search capabilities are there. In fact, much has been made of Ford producing its own version of an app store. In reality, Mr. Hall said that what Ford will be launching later this year is its "App Link." That's a new software application that allows apps on your phone to interface with SYNC. Developers don't have to create new apps just for the SYNC, but to write a new version of their application to communicate with SYNC. The app will then be voice activated, just like your cellphone. "It's opening a huge opportunity for us," he said.

One drawback -- unlike General Motors' OnStar system -- is that there are limitations to what SYNC can do if you're in an accident. Since SYNC is paired with your existing cellphone, it calls 911 through that line. But if your phone is broken, disabled or not turned on or in an area without cell service, you're out of luck.

"It is a reality of the system. We built SYNC to leverage your mobile phone," Mr. Hall said. "If your phone isn't paired with Bluetooth or it happens to break or you're in an area without service, those are the realities of the limitations."

But, Mr. Hall added, SYNC can also be paired with more than one cellphone, so if a passenger is traveling with you, the passenger can pair his or her cell with the system.

Mr. Hall said that driver distraction is Ford's biggest concern with the system, and that SYNC actually locks out some information. For instance, Sirius Satellite Radio offers a crawl of sports scores. When the car is engaged in drive, SYNC locks out that capability.

But I wonder when automakers, app developers and marketers figure out a way to tweak the system so that it allows scrolling ads, picture ads -- perhaps even video -- when the car is at a traffic light or stuck in traffic.

There's way too much potential not to do so.

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