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Ford's Sync 3 drops Microsoft, but can it fix the connected car?

Feedback from Ford drivers helped build a new, connected QNX platform

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The infotainment systems that automakers put in their cars aren’t great. They never have been. So you’d think taking feedback from thousands of customers and using that input to reinvent the in-car user experience would be a good idea. That’s just what Ford claims it’s done with Sync 3, the third generation of its connected infotainment platform that's being announced today. Sync 3 will start appearing in 2016 model cars. Ford says over 22,000 customer comments and suggestions helped steer its mission to improve upon Sync, which lets consumers place hands-free calls and texts, get turn-by-turn directions, and interact with smartphone apps while driving.

Striking harmony between your phone and car is something every auto manufacturer is pursuing; after all, over 80 percent of Ford customers are now carrying smartphones. Raj Nair, Ford’s CTO of global product development, said the company went out of its way to understand what customers are looking for. "It’s more research than we’ve ever done for any vehicle line, any product, any feature in our history," he said. But Sync 3 isn’t some grand reimagining of your vehicle’s dashboard. If anything, it feels like Ford reined in its ambitions in favor of delivering a simplified system that’s destined to be used up and down its vehicle lineup. "It’s more intuitive because we’ve actually reduced the amount of information on the home screen," said Nair, pointing to larger fonts and bigger touch zones that make for easier targets when driving. Sync 3’s got a brighter background color that won’t look as washed out in the sun, and menus are pretty basic — by design.

Underneath, Sync 3 is running new, BlackBerry QNX-based software that's a total departure from the work Ford and Microsoft had done together previously. That relationship is over, and Nair described this as "pretty much an all new platform." There’s also faster TI hardware powering the system along. "We benchmarked smartphone and tablet response times, and made sure we had the hardware capability to deliver on those type of customer expectations," Nair said.

Ford is emphasizing a few features in particular. First, the whole system is more closely modeled after a smartphone, and it starts with touch. The automaker has finally made the transition to capacitive touchscreens — years after electronics companies — and so the Sync 3 hardware registered even my lightest taps without any problems. It’s 2014, so Ford doesn’t really deserve any congratulations for finally adding support for swipe gestures and pinch-to-zoom in maps. But the company should get praise for improvements to the 911 Assist system in Sync 3, which can now tell emergency personnel which seat belts were in use during an accident and provide more specifics on the type of crash (front impact, side crash, rollover, etc.)

Software updates will also come easier, since every car leaving the production line with Sync 3 will have a Wi-Fi receiver built in. You can configure the car to connect to your home network from the garage, and a few times each month, Sync 3 will automatically ping Ford’s servers and pull down available updates. Say goodbye to annoying dealership visits and the fingers-crossed method of loading new software at home with a USB stick.

Your car can update its own software from the garage or driveway

The smartphone influence carries down to voice search, which is now more conversational and far less strict about the commands it will accept. You can say "ten twenty five Main Street" instead of "one zero two five Main Street," for example. Ford has also anchored a dock-like shortcut bar to the bottom of the screen that always remains visible. From here you can jump between music controls, climate preferences, turn-by-turn navigation, and Ford’s AppLink, which is what connects with compatible apps on your phone like Spotify, Pandora, and NPR One. Sync 3 automatically discovers AppLink-supported apps on your paired smartphone and displays them on screen.

As a whole, the menus are mostly inoffensive, occasionally ugly, but always pretty uninspired. "The flat style is very in right now," one of Ford's engineers told me when I asked about the company's design philosophy, explaining that the automaker's preference is to keep things familiar. This is software that has to be understood by millions of drivers. Everything needs to be dead-obvious since people will be interacting with it while at the helm of a fast-moving car. From that view, sticking to simplicity and plain-looking buttons makes sense. If you're not keen on the bright style, there's also a dark mode that can be switched on or automatically enabled at night.

But there are some questionable design choices. Sync 3 supports Siri Eyes-Free, but Ford’s representatives told me that Apple (oddly) won’t let the company make an icon to go along with its iOS assistant. Instead, we’re left with a totally blank, featureless button to activate it. (At least make the "Siri" text bigger or something.) It feels like an afterthought, even if it's out of Ford's control.

Right now, nothing about Sync 3 feels modern or novel from a design perspective — especially when compared to the in-car solutions from Apple and Google. It's no doubt a refinement over what came before, yet I never said "wow" in response to any of Sync 3’s feature demonstrations. The bar's being raised, but it's Silicon Valley doing the innovating rather than anyone in Detroit.

A faceless Siri feels like an afterthought

Third-party developers involved with AppLink can change how things look to some degree, but they can’t wipe away Ford’s visual style completely. Pandora can show album art or create icons to give any track a thumbs up or thumbs down, but ultimately it'll always look like other apps running on Ford’s platform. Again, that’s done by design to maintain consistency and user friendliness, but Ford has some serious work to do if it ever hopes to match the elegance of Apple’s CarPlay or Android Auto.

Speaking of which, Ford wouldn’t say when consumers can expect to start using CarPlay and Android Auto in its cars. The company’s reps only reiterated that Ford has pledged to support both, but offered no firm dates or information on whether Sync 3 cars would be upgraded for compatibility. Carmakers (Ford included) seem hesitant to let CarPlay or Android Auto take full ownership of their infotainment systems. They cite missing features like AM radio as a reason to maintain their own presence and put distance between Apple (or Google) and the driver. "If you're a terrestrial radio listener, you're going to have to bounce in and out of that experience to do that," Ford's Gary Jablonski told me. So the only real option is to shoehorn those radically different software experiences into Sync — without confusing people. That sounds like quite a challenge, and Jablonski admitted as much.

But it's a challenge for later. Right now, what we're left with in Sync 3 is a modest improvement over what came before. Ford has made a number of improvements to make its infotainment platform a bit smarter, faster, and easier to use. The company isn't yet saying which vehicle will get Sync 3 first, but Raj Nair said Ford is intent on keeping Sync "a mainstream option" available in a wide selection of cars from the Fiesta up through Lincoln's lineup.

Sync 3 won't blow you away, and it still struggles with some longstanding pain points like inputting a New York City address for directions. But if the goal was to make Sync 3 more usable and smartphone-like than its predecessors, Ford's definitely made some progress. No one's going to mistake Sync 3 for something that came from Cupertino or Mountain View. Ford's design just isn't on the same level, and it's readily apparent that a car company made this. But it's at least one step in the right direction, and maybe a step is the best we can ask for at this point.

Ford Sync 3 hands-on photos