An extensible software platform, a focus on mobile devices and a shared vision lead to advances in the connected driving experience
REDMOND, Wash. — Nov. 5, 2012 — When Microsoft and Ford Motor Co. started work on Ford SYNC in 2005, smartphones were still in their infancy and mobile apps and social networking sites were a shadow of what they are now. SYNC has since become an industry-leading automotive technology solution, and the simplicity of the user experience, using easy voice commands to operate it, is one of many things that set it apart from the competition.
Today at GigaOm Roadmap, Windows Embedded General Manager Kevin Dallas joined Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas on stage to mark the fifth anniversary of SYNC and major milestone: the 5 millionth SYNC-enabled vehicle sold. With this year’s expansion to the EU and Asia, Ford expects that number to reach 13 million by 2015.
“It’s been a rare privilege to work with Ford in developing the SYNC platform and to redefine the driving experience for so many people,” says Dallas. “Together, we created a solution that intertwines mobile technology with the in-car experience, providing drivers with a greater level of convenience and connectivity.”
The Start of Something New
Before its work with Ford, Microsoft had nearly a decade of experience developing connectivity solutions for the automotive space. In 1998, the company partnered with Clarion to announce the Auto PC, a first-of-its-kind solution that gave drivers access to e-mail, driving directions, paging and traffic alerts, and their entertainment system. And in 2003 the company developed Microsoft TBox, a telematics device that went on to power infotainment systems for a variety of car makers.
But the partnership between Ford and Microsoft brought together two companies that shared a common vision for the potential of helping drivers connect to their consumer electronics devices, and that had the expertise and ambition to provide that capability to the masses.
Walter Sullivan, Windows Embedded senior program manager and longtime member of Windows Embedded Automotive, notes that from the start both companies were well-aligned in their vision for a connected car. In addition to their shared points of view on how to implement technology, Sullivan says that there was also a bit of excitement about the prospects of working together to develop an in-car technology solution.
“Up until then most of our work on infotainment systems had been delivered overseas. This was the first chance for both companies to work on something truly unique in the North American marketplace, which employees could share firsthand with friends and family,” says Sullivan.
It’s All About the Device
Ford and Microsoft were both keenly aware of the growing importance of mobile devices within the consumer electronics industry. They wanted to build a solution that was both affordable and would integrate seamlessly with whatever technology a driver already owned. With that in mind they focused on incorporating mobile devices into the overall driving experience — leveraging the device’s capabilities, rather than duplicating its features with accessories that were built-in to the car.
The Ford team’s efforts are best described by Jim Buczkowski, currently the Henry Ford Technical Fellow and director of Electronics and Electrical Systems Research. According to Buczkowski, the approach that the company took stood in stark contrast to the rest of the auto industry.
“Our competitors were focused on building modems and other telematics technologies into the vehicle, an approach that could significantly increase the cost of the vehicle and make the prospect of a system upgrade difficult at best,” says Buczkowski. “SYNC was designed so that drivers could use voice recognition and the controls on the steering column to control whatever device they brought in, regardless of the operating system.”
Keeping That New Technology Feel
Today, technology is one of the most critical factors in the purchase of a new car. According to Gartner analyst Thilo Koslowski, “the rise of mobile devices and digital media over the past 10 years is increasingly impacting consumer expectations for new functionalities and features in automobiles.” Unfortunately, car makers have not always been nimble when responding to changes in consumer technology, but Buczkowski says that the extensibility of the Windows Embedded software platform helped change all that.
Nine months after rolling out the first version of SYNC, Ford completed the first of several SYNC apps that it developed in-house: 911 Assist. Other apps followed soon after, Vehicle Health Report and SYNC Services, the cloud-based network that provides traffic, directions and information services.
And with AppLink Ford extended the access and control of SYNC to include third-party apps installed on the driver’s smartphone, such as Pandora, iHeart Radio and Roximity — all controlled using nothing more than voice commands.
“Using an operating system like Windows Embedded allowed us to think about SYNC not just as a static one-time solution but as something more dynamic where we could build-in additional capabilities, experiences and services as technology evolved,” says Buczkowski. “This design allows us to keep pace — even anticipate — trends within consumer electronics, and begin developing experiences that match our customers’ needs and desires.”
The Future of the Driving Experience
The number of connected cars on the world's highways and byways is only expected to grow, and as Microsoft and Ford look at the future of in-vehicle connectivity, they are focused on how it can enable the rise of the intelligent vehicle.
Ford has a concept for the connected car of tomorrow called Evos. One of the key aspects of Ford’s concept will be SYNC’s ability to automatically access historical and location-based data that’s stored in the cloud. This data will provide SYNC with a base-line understanding of the driver’s habits and preferences, as well as variables like the weather forecast, daily schedules, local points of interest, and unexpected events or traffic hazards that might impact the driver’s safety or schedule.
Together Microsoft and Ford are exploring the technologies that will deliver this kind of intelligent vehicle experience. This includes the use of the cloud, in-vehicle sensors and vehicle-to-vehicle communication, which expand the data sources the vehicle has access to. Other advances, such as natural language processing and machine learning, could help SYNC provide a more natural interaction between car and driver, enabling a driving experience that’s more personalized, responsive and safe.
Says Buczkowski: “The next generation of driving experiences needs to focus more on personal experiences with the vehicle, whether it's setting your preferences or being connected to information that's relevant to your location. That kind of personalization requires access to a lot more information, but it also makes for a ‘magical’ experience in which my car knows me well and can help me along my drive.”
The enabling technologies for many of these scenarios are already available, and with the extensibility of Windows Embedded, it’s only a matter of time before you’ll know what’s around the next corner before you get there.