Ford Calls on Singer to Sell Sync to Hispanics

Experts Question Safety of Voice-Activated System for Phone, MP3 Player

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In case you need yet another thing to do while driving, Ford Motor Co. last week announced a feature called Sync that gives you the power to control your phone and MP3 player inside your car using voice commands.
Latino recording artist Juanes talks up the multilingual gizmo to Generation Y.
Latino recording artist Juanes talks up the multilingual gizmo to Generation Y. Credit: Gamma Eyedea

Or, more specifically, Latin recording artist Juanes announced it. Thanks to a deal brokered by William Morris, the automaker will be partnering with the top-selling all-Spanish-language musician to hype the voice-activated system, which responds to commands in English, French and, of course, Spanish.

Said Dave Rodriguez, multicultural-marketing-communications manager for Ford: "Staying connected to friends and music while on the go is no longer a trend; it's part of everyday life for our Hispanic target, and Sync brings this power exclusively to Ford drivers."

The expressed goal for Ford is to target Hispanics of Generation Y. To connect with those tech-savvy Latinos, Ford is sponsoring Juanes' fourth album, "La vida ... es un ratico" ("Life ... is a moment"), helping promote its release in 77 countries on Oct. 23, the largest worldwide release for an all-Spanish language artist.

Worse than driving drunk?
As part of the marketing launch of Sync, strategically positioned "talking" billboards are being deployed nationally in high-traffic areas. When triggered by motion detectors, they play a recorded message from Juanes talking about the benefits of Sync. The automaker is also sponsoring Juanes' 2008 tour.

In a statement released by Ford, Juanes said: "I love the idea of people having the ability of listening to my music and communicating with loved ones by voice command while continuing to drive safely."

So do scientists. Unfortunately, many top researchers are muy escéptico about the "safely" part.

Letting your tongue do the dialing while you do the driving seems intuitively safer. But lots of research about cellphone use on the road suggests that regardless of how you place a call, you're better off drinking and driving than phoning and driving. In Australia, researchers at the University of Sydney's Injury Prevention and Trauma Care Division recently found that people who use their cellphones while driving -- including people using hands-free devices -- were four times more likely to be involved in a crash.

And according to a study published last year by University of Utah psychologists in "Human Factors: The Journal of the Human Factors and Ergonomics Society," driving while talking on a cellphone -- hands-free or not -- is as bad as or maybe worse than driving legally drunk.

Dr. Frank Drews, one of the researchers behind the Utah hands-free study, said he was simultaneously encouraged by and highly skeptical of the Sync technology. Though he cautioned that no studies have yet been done on voice-activated calling in cars, he said he was skeptical about Sync because of how voice-response technology handles accents and, more generally, how humans respond to risk.

Mr. Drews, a German national with a heavy accent, laughed as he said: "Imagine me talking, and it could be a recipe for disaster."

He added: "It would be very encouraging if it were 100% effective in recognizing your voice. The problem is, the moment it drops to 99%, you're distracted, and it sets you up for failure."

Mr. Drews also noted that Hispanics from, say, Spain, Honduras and Chile would pronounce many of the same Spanish words differently.

Said Ford's Mr. Rodriguez, "Relative to the different dialects in Spanish, we had a Spanish-speaking production crew that was from all over: Colombia, Mexico, Honduras. People were in and out of the cars constantly, trying it out. Anecdotally, we know it's very responsive."

'Risk compensation'
Still, even if Ford nails the voice-response technological gremlins with Sync, Mr. Drews said humans have a propensity for something called "risk compensation" -- which means that even if you create a situation where you reduce one risk, "it pushes them to do other activities. You might try to multitask even more, and you thereby increase your risk."

Mr. Rodriguez referred questions about the Sync's language-recognition capabilities and its safety testing to John Emmert, a brand manager for Sync Ford. Mr. Emmert did not respond to several calls and e-mails from Ad Age.

Ford's push for a multilingual, voice-activated cellphone solution reflects a keen desire by both cellphone companies and automakers to head legislation off at the pass as legislatures across the nation struggle to keep pace with consumers' addictive wireless-communication habits.

No state has completely banned all types of cellphone use (hand-held and hands-free) while driving. But in May of this year, Washington became the first state to ban driving while texting for all drivers, according to the Governor's Highway Safety Association. A few other states are considering similar measures.
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