With laws in Michigan and other states cracking down on texting while driving, Ford (NYSE: F) unveiled some new features to its SYNC platform, an all-in-one navigation, communication, and entertainment center that takes the next step in Ford's goal of transforming the automobile into one big, safety-conscious, smartphone on wheels.
New features in Ford's SYNC product include a "Do Not Disturb" button that saves your texts for you until you've parked your car, and a text-to-voice function that reads your text messages to you. Many distracting applications are locked out when the car is in motion, including Web browsing, displaying texts onscreen, navigation entry by touchscreen, and photo editing.
The more we fiddle with our smartphones while driving, the more dangerous it becomes. So, the ability to interface, in a seamless way, with your car's dashboard is crucial. Auto supplier Delphi is also working on a system that automatically shuts down any text- or video-centered app when you put your car into drive. But Ford appears to be among the first to have implemented these controls.
Alan Hall, Ford's communications manager for technology and design, said Ford has been proactive from the start about limiting the amount of manual control while driving in favor of voice control. You cannot scroll through your MP3 collection, for example. You access it via voice control. SYNC prevents manual entry of destinations in navigation systems while driving, but allows voice entry.
"So, we've been very proactive with encouraging the use of voice control to keep drivers' eyes on the road and hands on the wheel," Hall says in an email yesterday morning.
If the automotive and mobile industries do not figure out a way to prevent accidents on their own, you can expect tougher laws on the books -- especially if more accidents occur as a result of driver distraction.
To help with that integration, Ford is inviting mobile phone manufacturers to adopt a Bluetooth standard called MAP (Message Access Profile), which enables the phone and SYNC to exchange message data. SYNC is an open platform, which means that the architecture is flexible and "open" for new applications to be developed for it. The text message readback feature is part of SYNC. But, so far, only Research In Motion (Nasdaq:RIMM) has integrated the appropriate Bluetooth profile that enables BlackBerry devices to communicate with SYNC.
Ford SYNC was co-developed by Ford and Microsoft (Nasdaq: MSFT) and introduced in 2007 on the 2008 model year Focus. It is now available across almost all of Ford's product line. Microsoft provides the software based on its Windows Embedded Automotive platform, and then Ford develops and integrates all the capabilities and applications on that platform. It partners with other companies for some of those applications, including Nuance (Nasdaq:NUAN), based in Burlington, MA., for voice recognition and TeleNav (Nasdaq: TNAV), based in Sunnyvale, CA., for navigation data.
Hall indicated that it is important for the automaker to determine what applications are available on the SYNC, and what gets locked out while the car's being driven.
"We own the in-vehicle experience, therefore it will be up to us to evaluate and determine what apps are accessible through SYNC," Hall says.
It makes sense to me, since, as Toyota's recent troubles with brakes revealed, the carmaker will be held responsible if something goes wrong.
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