Greetings from Detroit! I'm on the road this week, and my first stop was Ford, where I had a quick glance at an upcoming SUV (more about that Monday) and got a chance to play with the next generation of Ford's voice-activated SYNC system. For those unfamiliar, SYNC is a system which allows you to control several of the car's systems (navigation, climate, and iPod) with voice commands. SYNC isn't the only voice command system in the biz, but it's definitely the most advanced.
For 2011, Ford is introducing a new system called MyFord Touch, which combines the SYNC system with a new touch-screen display and cell-phone-like steering wheel controls. They've also improved the SYNC system, giving it a bigger vocabulary and moving more commands to the first level. For example, in the current car, if you want to call your mother, you'd have to press the button and say "Phone," wait for a response, then press again and say "Call Mom." Now you can press the button once and say "Call Mom on her cell," and SYNC will do your bidding. SYNC also responds to commands like "Warmer" (raises temperature) and "I'm hungry" (finds nearest restaurants). Also new: The MyTouch system includes a WiFi hot spot. You can plug in an USB modem (i.e. one of those Sprint or AT&T dealios that gives your computer Internet on the road), and any computers in the car will connect to the Internet. Even without an Internet modem, you can connect computers to each other inside the car. I'm not sure why you'd want to do that, but it sure makes my geeky heart go pitter-pat. Other new features include the ability to send destinations to the SYNC system from Google Maps or Mapquest - you can then get in-car turn-by-turn directions - and an OnStar-like system called 911 Assist, which calls for help if the car is in a crash.
As I listened to the SYNC presentation, I kept thinking of Star Trek: The Next Generation, when the crew would carry on conversations with the computer. We're heading in that direction, folks - it's just a matter of time before you sit down in your car, press a button, and say "Start the engine, turn on the wipers and the defroster, set the temperature to 72, get me directions to Bill's House of Clam Chowder and call my office," and the car does it all. It's nice to see a domestic automaker on the leading edge. -- Aaron Gold