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Alexa and Waze add depth to Ford’s improving SYNC infotainment system

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Trying out Ford’s future on the new EcoSport SUV

At the beginning of the year, Ford announced it was adding two big names to its SYNC in-car infotainment system for iPhone users: Amazon Alexa and Google’s Waze. This week I got a brief first look at how both of them work.

The company was in town showing off the Ford EcoSport, a small economy SUV originally launched in China, which has since made its way to Europe and, now, the United States. Equipped with the latest version of SYNC 3, these tiny SUVs are about to hit American streets for the first time, with Ford hoping to take a new bite out of the growing market for trucks, SUVs, and crossovers.

Alexa had already been in Ford cars in a more limited capacity, so let’s start with Waze. The Google-owned navigation service has been available on Android Auto since last summer, and now Ford’s integration means there’s finally a way to get it working with iPhones, too. (Apple, predictably, probably doesn’t want users to pick anything over Apple Maps while using CarPlay.)

It’s very cool to see Waze up and running on the nearly eye-level touchscreen that sits atop the EcoSport’s dashboard, which is fairly crisp, colorful, and clear. I’ve always enjoyed using Waze, but the community features — reporting traffic, cops, and other things you encounter along the road — have always felt like a distraction while driving. Because of that, I’ve always liked using Waze more as a passenger. Moving the whole experience to the car’s touchscreen feels far more natural when I’m driving.

And it is the full experience. Like CarPlay or Android Auto, the Waze app in this situation is still running on your phone while mirroring a version on the car’s head unit. Unfortunately, it’s still in beta at the moment, which means it’s a bit slow, some menus don’t quite fit the screen correctly, and the app has trouble closing.

Meanwhile, Alexa has been available in some Ford cars in piecemeal for a while now, but the recent update (thanks to an app dubbed Ford+Alexa) has opened up access to everything that the voice assistant is capable of on Amazon’s dedicated devices. That means you can pull from any of the 25,000-plus skills that third party companies and developers have built to work with Alexa from inside any Ford car with SYNC 3, instead of just a few particular ones (audiobooks, navigation, etc.) like before.

How many of those thousands of extra skills are useful in a car setting? The answer is debatable, but probably a low number. Having access to to-do or shopping lists is probably helpful, especially if you already use Alexa for those purposes in your home. Asking Alexa to help you navigate to a specific destination also seems useful, since it is faster than Ford’s own voice controls.

Ford has built in some other actions specific to the experience of using a car that make a little bit more sense, like being able to use Alexa on your phone to remote start, unlock, or lock the car. (With the original, more limited Alexa integration, users were able to do these things from Amazon’s own devices like the Echo or Echo Dot.)

Unfortunately, these actions require a not-so-short string of commands and (except for the “lock the car” command) a personal pin number. Here’s what you need to do to start your car via the Alexa app on your phone. First, open the Alexa app. Then, say the following: “Alexa, ask Ford Pass to start my car using pin number ####.” The only leeway you have in the phrasing is the “start my car” section — Ford has built in a few alternatives like “start the engine” so that you don’t have to speak a precise phrase. And if you try to say just the first half of this whole phrase, Alexa will still ask you for the pin number.

Like the Waze integration, Alexa on SYNC is working off the smartphone’s processor and data connection. But it’s still surprisingly responsive. (In fact it’s so quick to respond that we had to turn it off to be able to talk about it inside the car, or else we’d keep triggering it.) And once you turn Alexa on in SYNC, it will stay on regardless of what other apps you open on the car’s touchscreen. This means that you can call on Alexa to answer questions or perform tasks even if you have the car’s navigation screen up, or the radio, or any other Ford AppLink apps.

Also like with the Waze integration, this means you have to have your phone plugged into the car for any of this to work, since Ford’s AppLink system doesn’t work wirelessly, at least not yet. And if I’m being honest, there’s a bit of overcrowding happening here. For instance, you can now get in a car with SYNC 3, plug in your iPhone, and navigate with: Ford’s navigation, Waze’s navigation, or Apple Maps. But if you fire up CarPlay, you won’t be able to use Alexa anymore until you back out to the SYNC menus. You also can’t, say, ask Alexa to get directions in Waze instead of with Ford’s navigation system.

Basically there’s a lot going on, and it’s not immediately clear to the user how it all works (or doesn’t work) together. Chaos aside, though, I’m happy to see Ford giving consumers more choice. It’s better than giving them none at all.

Full Alexa in a car seems like overkill, but it also feels like a beachhead for Amazon. We’re starting to see car companies flirt with the idea of shopping in a car, and it’s easy to imagine them warming to the idea as cars become more autonomous. I’d also imagine it won’t be long before, when you ask Alexa to route you to the nearest Starbucks or Burger King, it could also send ahead your favorite order as well. In fact, there’s a similar version of this already available in SYNC 3: the Domino’s app is AppLink compatible, meaning it will show up on the car’s touchscreen menu, and can be used to place a repeat or “favorite” order.

As for the EcoSport, it’s a cute little compact that would actually probably be a lot of fun if Ford threw in one of its sportier engines. It’s roomier than it looks, and it has more bells and whistles than you might expect for a $20,000 car. This is not the first car Ford has made for a global market, or even specifically, for the Chinese market, before bringing it to the US. But it’s the kind of thing we might see more of as the company shifts to making more hybrid and electric vehicles, many of which will be launched (and even produced) in overseas markets.