Ford's new Sync system switches to digital owner's manual

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. plans to roll out the next generation of its Sync infotainment system in new vehicles starting in 2020, which the automaker says will unlock an array of new abilities in its vehicles.

That includes ditching printed owners manuals in favor of digital "books" uploaded to the vehicle's on-board computer.

Ford's new Sync 4 system will debut on new 2020 models

The new system, called Sync 4, is expected to use some of the largest-ever touchscreen displays in Ford vehicles to allow customers to navigate entertainment, navigation and communication screens on the center console. The automaker is also turning to an improved voice-recognition interface that better recognizes natural patterns of speech, and uses a new "trigger" phrase much like Apple Inc.'s "Hey, Siri," to access the system verbally.

The new system will build on advances made in the Sync interface since Ford introduced it more than a decade ago. Connectivity in the new vehicles would allow over-the-air updates across the new vehicle lineup beginning with those introduced next year — a first for Ford. And the new system would spur Ford's in-vehicle infotainment system to compete with the operating systems offered by cellphones, Ford officials said.

"The cellphone has had the advantage," said Gary Jablonski, Ford Sync chief engineer. "Sync 4 levels the playing field. You're able to approach it with the expectations you have with other digital assistants."

Automakers in recent years have lost ground to technology companies Apple and Alphabet Inc. in terms of in-car entertainment and navigation systems, which have developed applications like Apple CarPlay, AppLink and others to more seamlessly integrate cellphones into a vehicle's telematics system. For most automakers, the tech company's app would trump the in-vehicle system. Ford's new Sync 4 program would allow users to use CarPlay simultaneously with Sync applications. 

Ford said customers would be able to use a wireless connection to use those smartphone apps, which typically need a wired connection.

The new Sync software would also utilize cloud connectivity to better respond to voice requests. Previous Sync iterations pulled navigation locations from an in-vehicle database. Cloud access would allow more flexibility and easier recognition of places Ford might not have loaded into the mapping software. Cloud connection would also allow for more conversational requests, much like those used for, Inc.'s Alexa software or for Siri on Apple devices.

The automaker plans to debut new center console screens with the new system. A new 15-inch vertical touchscreen will debut on the automaker's as-yet-unnamed electric vehicle, which the automaker plans to unveil in November. That screen would have some special features that would prioritize a list of the applications and functions a driver uses most while in the vehicle, among other things.

Ford also plans to debut a 12-inch horizontal screen on another model that would allow drivers to split the screen and use two applications at once in different-sized windows.

Meantime, the automaker plans to do away with most of the owners manuals in new vehicles. Pieces of the booklets will still be printed on hard copies and placed in glove boxes, Ford said. But most of the manual would be uploaded to the vehicle's on-board computer system and accessible through Sync 4.

The digital manual would function without internet connectivity, and allow owners to search the document via voice or text.

The new system and interfaces are the result of work done by a team of 400 engineers in Ford's Sync offices in Dearborn. The automaker expects the new Sync system and over-the-air update capabilities to debut within the next year.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau