By Lisa Johnston
New products on display at the American International Toy Fair, held in N
Ford is expanding its Sync car A/V system to almost all Ford vehicles, and it is adding a new feature to the advanced Sync system, which has sold more than 30,000 units in less than three months.
Ford said Sync, which began selling in mid-October, represents the most successful launch of a car entertainment system in Ford's history.
At International CES, Ford said it will broaden Sync's availability to nearly all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars and trucks by the end of 2008, including the popular F-series truck line. It was previously available on 12 models.
Co-developed with Microsoft, Sync has sold 33,000 units in new cars and is on track to exceed sales of 1 million units by early 2009, said Ford.
"Those are pretty good numbers," said Velle Kolde, Microsoft automotive business unit product manager, at CES, who added, "A Ford car equipped with Sync sells twice as fast as a car without it."
Microsoft also said that initial consumer reaction to Sync is very strong with 90 percent of owners stating they would recommend it to other people.
Microsoft chairman Bill Gates also announced at CES that Sync will offer a new 911-assist feature. Once the user pairs a Bluetooth phone with Sync (performed once initially), the Sync can then automatically call 911 should the air bag in the car ever deploy in an accident. As long as the user has his phone in the car and it is turned on, Sync will place the call in an emergency and a prerecorded message will play when the call is answered. The feature helps to speed a connection to 911, Ford said, and it carries no additional monthly fees.
The Sync car A/V system raised eyebrows since its introduction as it allows connections with most portable devices, including iPods and Bluetooth phones, and it controls all the devices via voice recognition without requiring the user to "voice train" the unit. It can also "read" aloud text messages from a cellphone and stream music from the phone by voice command. Users can also respond to text messages by selecting a "canned" response. The Sync launch was also notable in that it included lower-priced, as well as higher end vehicles. The Sync is a $395 option on models such as the Ford Focus and a standard feature on cars such as the Lincoln.
Ford has also embarked on an aggressive TV ad campaign for Sync. Ford brand manager John Emmett said this was "the first time we launched a feature the same way we launched a vehicle. We put the resources behind it similar to a major vehicle freshening."
Commenting on Sync at CES, Delphi said the product represents a breakthrough in OEM systems and that other car makers are now reacting to it. "I think they are all somewhat threatened that Ford is out there with it and they don't have something like it," said Jeffrey Owens, Delphi electronics and safety president.
Ford says its voice-recognition capabilities are superior to anything offered by car companies to date, claiming earlier voice-command systems were a gimmick in that they only controlled features such as seek or volume and it was easier to simply to do that by hand.
Although aftermarket products perform many of the same functions, few read aloud text messages and few offer the Sync's level of voice recognition and integration into the car's network. Pioneer and Mitek, however, have announced car products with advanced voice-recognition capabilities slated for shipping this year.
Chris Cook, OEM integration VP for Mitek, said of Sync, "It's a threat to the aftermarket because it doesn't allow third-party partners to engineer into it."
But Larry Rougas, Pioneer mobile electronics marketing and product planning VP, said, "I'm all for Sync. I like the awareness it is creating for the category."
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