Version 4 of Ford Sync infotainment brings support for screens as big as 15.5 inches, wireless connections for Android Auto and Apple CarPlay, and over-the-air updates for a wide range of software/firmware updates to the car, not just infotainment updates. There will be an always-on, Alexa-like agent (wake word: Ford). It comes next year in Fords and Lincolns that are all-new or major-refresh vehicles. More in-car connections can be wireless, reducing the times a USB cable gets in the way of a center-stack control you’re trying to reach.
Bigger screens will have more windows available. The biggest screen will have a physical volume knob sticking out the bottom. All this moves Ford infotainment ahead in some respects, while in others Ford and other companies are keeping pace with each other. Ford says it’s “faster, easier and simpler than ever to use.” Ford is sticking with the QNX operating system for Sync, but it has taken development work in-house.
The Bigger the Screen, the More It Does
The basic screen is 8 inches diagonal, which is nothing special, merely better than a 7-incher. The step-up screen is 12 inches and appears to be 16:9 aspect ratio with the ability to do a 70-30 split and show two windows for what Ford calls multi-tasking. True: You can see navigation on the left, your phone or the audio stream on the right, and you can access either one, so it’s “multitasking,” but that’s pretty common.
The largest screen is 15.5 inches, portrait mount (three images, above). It for sure will go into Ford’s F-Series pickups to match and raise the 12-incher in Ram pickups. The top of the screen shows whatever you’re doing now, while the bottom has HVAC controls and a physical volume knob. The middle is three panes, or Adaptive Dash Cards, there are six running left to right; you see three, and swipe left-right to see the rest. An infotainment card would let you pause or jump tracks even if it’s not showing elsewhere. AI, or machine learning, or something automatic, decides which three to display for you. Ford says:
Available machine learning capability also means Sync 4 can automatically learn your preferences and make helpful suggestions at the right time based on previous usage. Sync 4 will make destination suggestions based on your previous navigation behavior and can even prompt you to make phone calls to people that you frequently speak to.
We hope to see working concepts by early 2019 to get a feel for how much Ford’s predictive intelligence is in sync with what you want to do.
Voice Recognition, Fewer Cords
Sync 4 gets a new level of conversational voice recognition to control the center stack hardware and make infotainment selections. Some basic voice recognition is running inside the car in case you lose or don’t have connectivity. Also, it takes too long to process “Next track” or “Navigate home” in the cloud even if you have a connection working (every car, not just Ford).
All this is possible “now that every new Ford vehicle comes with optional FordPass Connect with a 4G LTE WiFi Hotspot, [and] cloud connectivity comes standard to Sync 4.” Meaning, apparently, that every Ford model offers FordPass Connect on at least some trim lines, whether standard or optional. FordPass is an app customers can load on their phones to help control Ford Motor cars, and FordPass Connect is an embedded cellular telematics modem. Ford, like most automakers, partners with AT&T as the service provider.
Onboard telematics means the ability to use the power of the cloud to process complex voice requests with the industry-standard lag of a couple seconds before the cloud gets back to you with an answer. But you can ask richer questions — just like talking to Google Assistant or Apple Siri — such as “Find the best Asian fusion restaurant near here” or find a location by its name, even if you get it a little bit wrong, or it’s not in the online POI listing.
Bluetooth and Wi-Fi can be simultaneously connected in the car. Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, Waze, and Ford’s own Sync AppLink can be used wirelessly, no need to plug in a cord, and Ford says there will be wireless (Qi) charging. It will be interesting to see how many Qi spots there’ll be on higher-end cars. Two in front and at least one in back would be nice.
The owner’s manual will be available onscreen but probably not while the car is moving, even if it’s a passenger who wants to look something up. If your car has satellite radio, you can get SiriusXM with 360L, providing streaming music either through the car and its onboard modem, or your phone. Ford also promises “curated” channels based on your listening habits.
Of importance especially to technology haters is how Ford handles updates. Much of the car, not just the infotainment system, can use over the air (OTA) updates downloaded late at night to get newer software or navigation maps. Most updates take just a minute or two. The old app remains installed until the owner decides he or she wants the update installed, then presses a button to make it happen. So the owner has a sense of being in control. And Ford says that for owners who just can’t get enough of dealership visits (actually, they didn’t put it quite that way), the owner has the option of letting the dealer do the install.
Does Ford Have a Class-Leading Product?
Ford was early with a phone-car infotainment system starting with the first Sync in late 2007. Also called MyFord Touch, two versions carried Ford through late 2014. There were some novel parts, especially work truck apps for people whose office is their truck. The early products were decent but suffered problems of slow booting, slow operation, small fonts, and sudden crashes that turned the screen blue, the same Blue Screen of Death (BSOD) hue as on Microsoft Windows. Ford ditched Windows Automotive/Windows Embedded for Blackberry QNX and things got a lot better in 2015. That was Sync 3; Sync 4 is a significant enhancement to Sync 3.
Sync 4 should make Windows more competitive against a wide range of mainstream vehicles. Ford declined to comment on plans for Lincoln but we’re confident Sync 4 will find its way there. The company is on a roll with a string of SUV hits — the Corsair, Nautilus, and Aviator (from small to large) — and has become the attractive nameplate for buyers who value luxury and refined cockpits over Nürburgring-ready handling you’ll never use.
We’ll wait to see new-vehicle prototypes early to mid-2020 to learn which cars get what size screens. If Ford is smart, it will have 12-inch displays on midsize vehicles, not just the big cars, because a) it’s what buyers want and b) the Ford Escape circa 2010 with a 4-inch screen still leaves a bad taste, so think of Sync 4 as reparations. We’re also interested to see how much redundancy there is between touchscreen controls and physical buttons. Many users prefer a fan or temperature control that is always visible on the dash, large, and easy to manipulate. If you’ve ever had to hunt for the seat heater button that is only on the LCD, two levels down, you know why users love dials.
We trust Ford will offer entry and mid-grade trims without a navigation system ($500) since Google Maps and Waze are more than good enough. Ford could also continue to offer its own on-phone navi app that runs off the phone. Buyers are happy enough with what’s on the phone. If an automaker wants to offer premium services that require the automaker’s own navigation, then maybe it has to include onboard navigation free or for $99 if it plans to charge for services overload atop navigation.
If Ford goes to Sync 4 only as it ships new models — roughly every six to seven years — and mid-life refreshes every three to four, Sync 4 would be on all cars sold by 2023 or 2024. Sooner is always better. Ford has made a lot of smart bets: moving to SUVs (even if millennials say they want sedans), making Lincoln luxury not sports/luxury, committing to to electrification, and even targeted bits of utility such as Pro Trailer Backup Assist (turn a knob the direction you the whole vehicle to go and it does, without jackknifing). Sync 4 could be another differentiator for Ford.
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