In 2020, Ford will debut its new SYNC 4 infotainment system with the brand’s biggest screens ever, over-the-air update capability, wireless Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, and a revised user interface with cloud capability. Here’s how it all works.
Ford’s SYNC infotainment system has been around since 2007, and in 2020 will enter its fourth generation. It will add a number of new features, which will be slathered all over screens ranging from eight to 15.5 inches, including an available 12-incher.
At a press event yesterday in Allen Park, Michigan, Ford showed off the 12-inch landscape screen and a 15.5-inch portrait unit. The smaller of the two showed a user interface like this:
Ford describes the setup in a press release, writing:
On all-new available 12-inch screens, multi-tasking will be enabled by splitting the screen into larger and smaller windows, helpful for viewing two different tasks at once. For example, if a customer wants to keep their navigation route on the screen while changing songs, they can choose to display the radio or other streaming music services in the smaller display area. Customers will be able to quickly scroll through nine different features to display as Information on Demand, making SYNC 4 easier to use.
The demonstration unit that Ford shared with journalists included physical volume controls below the horizontal screen, with a volume knob on the left, a “tune” knob on the right, and play/pause/change channel and other radio control buttons in between.
Then there’s the 15.5-inch screen, which is laid out in a vertical orientation like this:
A tactile volume knob sits at the center of the HVAC controls that remain at the bottom of the screen. Just above that section are six “dash cards,” which can change to display the features you use most often. Ford also mentioned that its system can learn when you use certain functions, and based on that, make suggestions. For example, if someone calls home everyday after work, they might then see the home contact front-and center on the display after work. Or if someone travels a certain place at a certain time everyday, SYNC 4 might start recommending that address at that time.
Above the dash cards is the main window for running applications like the radio (as shown above) or navigation. Ford breaks it all down in its press release:
With large 15.5-inch screens, SYNC 4 features the addition of Adaptive Dash Cards. Instead of having to navigate menus every time you want to launch an app, recently used or popular features are listed horizontally underneath the main portion of the screen in individual dash cards. These cards display helpful information such as the next step on your route, but they are interactive as well. You can pause or skip songs directly through the card instead of having to bring up your music player, and similarly you can view your phone status or hang up calls through the card as well.
A point that Ford stressed during the event was that SYNC 4's cloud connectivity, enabled by the optional-on-all-Fords “FordPass Connect with a 4G LTE Wi-Fi Hotspot,” was an important part of improving SYNC 4's user experience over SYNC 3. Ford says the cloud connectivity allows for real-time navigation and traffic alerts, up-to-date weather reports, real-time information on parking space availability, an internet’s worth of points of interest to navigate to, and much more, including allegedly improved voice recognition.
That last point, Ford mentioned, is a big one, since the company believes that voice will “increasingly...be the means by which you interact with the vehicle,” executive director for Ford Connected Vehicle Platform and Product Don Butler told the media.
“Okay Ford” is among the wake terms a vehicle occupant can say to activate the digital assistant, which Ford says can take commands in a “conversational” manner (Ford says you can turn off the wake words, and that there will be other options than “Okay Ford.”). In other words, you won’t have to talk to your car in a robotic manner, you can just say things like “Take me to Taco Bell.”
Another change, Ford says, is that Apple CarPlay and Android Auto now work through Wi-Fi, and no longer require a phone to be plugged in via USB: From Ford:
For the first time, Ford is implementing wireless implementation of both Apple CarPlay and Android Auto, as well as SYNC AppLink apps such as Waze or Ford+Alexa.
Customers will continue to be able to use both Bluetooth and Wi-Fi to enable simultaneous operation of in-vehicle entertainment and mobile device navigation while providing calls, music, and other features to be controlled through the vehicle’s display.
Other features that Ford mentioned are an embedded, searchable digital owner’s manual with how-to videos that can be played via the cloud, and apps like Yelp and Accuweather, which will be integrated into the system.
SYNC 4 will come on certain Ford vehicles beginning in 2020.
Over-The-Air Software Updates
Another announcement yesterday was Ford’s addition of advanecd over-the-air software updates—a feature that Tesla has been touting for years. Ford says that, starting in 2020, “most redesigned vehicles in the U.S.” will get over-the-air update capability. That will allow for changes to not just the infotainment system, but also to the vast majority of control modules found in the vehicle. From Ford:
In 2020, Ford will begin equipping most redesigned vehicles in the U.S. with advanced over-the-air update (OTA) technology, making it easy to wirelessly upgrade vehicles with quality, capability and convenience updates that can help improve vehicles over time and reduce dealer trips. Ford quickly becomes a leader in launching bumper-to-bumper OTAs for nearly all vehicle computer modules, including in conventional gas-engine vehicles.
It’s worth mentioning that the over-the-air update capability and SYNC 4 are technically not two in the same. “They are separate systems as OTA has broad capability across most vehicle computing systems. Most fully redesigned vehicles will get both,” a Ford rep told me over email. Ford describes the “OTA” system as seamless in its press release, writing:
Some updates will be virtually invisible to customers, enabled by an innovative platform that installs much of the new software in the background. This new platform keeps current software running until the new version is ready for activation – something that no other vehicle, or even some popular smartphones, can do today.
In some cases, a seamless update isn’t possible, and in those situations, Ford says, customers can schedule updates to happen overnight. Yes, over-the-air updates can indeed happen when the car is “off,” though Ford points out that there are controls in place to make sure the battery doesn’t drain. From Ford on the topic:
Customers can select a regular time they are not using the vehicle – such as the middle of the night for many – to schedule updates their vehicle is off, meaning they may not even notice the installation occurred once they start their car. Most other updates can be activated in under two minutes, while any updates that may require the vehicle to be parked can be scheduled to take place when customers find it most convenient.
Not only will over-the-air updates allow for Ford to tweak various infotainment and user-interface-related aspects of the car, but according to company representatives, over-the-air updates allow for write-capability on roughly 90 percent of the electronic control units on the vehicle, including the ABS module, ADAS module, and the Body Control Module.
As Ford puts it, the vehicle “could be repaired in your driveway,” which Butler says can offer benefits to Ford, helping to minimize warranty costs. But at the same time, it means the customer doesn’t have to bring their vehicle into the dealer to be reflashed.
In addition to infotainment updates and electronic control module reflashes, Ford also says this over-the-air system could allow for Ford to charge customers for new features that, at the time of purchase, they decided not to opt for or that weren’t available at the time.
FoMoCo says it expects to conduct the first over-the-air updates on production vehicles six months after those vehicles launch in 2020.