Ford’s SYNC technology is just an early step along the path of updateability

Carmakers are facing a future of providing a continually updateable digital offering on their vehicles as customers make demands on their cars that they’ve come to expect on their computer products.

That’s the clear message from Ford which has launched the third generation of its SYNC technology some nine years after its first incarnation.

Speaking exclusively to TU-Automotive, Ford Europe’s Christof Kellerwessel, chief engineer electrical/electronic systems engineering, said keeping up with customer expectations is a major challenge for a future where technological change will accelerate.

Kellerwessel said: “We’re in the side of the business that evaluates the smartphone where expectation arises for new product very quickly so that’s one reason for the new SYNC 3.

“We also thought that a lifetime of two to three years is the maximum you’d expect for an infotainment system such as we have in our vehicles and this is now the right time to move on to the next level.

“So we’re bringing in a system that has ten-times the performance of the prior model and with that it was important for us to renovate the links, the HMI [human-machine interface] and the intuitiveness and bring in all the lessons we have learned.

“There is a business case for this because customers demand is still growing and we’ve seen a constant rise in demand for navigation support and, of course, connectivity demands a raising of performance.”

He said SYNC 3 raises the bar for connectivity because, while boasting Apple CarPaly and Google Android Auto, it also features Ford’s AppLink interface to connect the smartphone’s applications through both voice command and the car’s HMI.

Explaining the strategy further, Kellerwessel said: “This makes a lot of sense because when the demand wasn’t there a few years ago but we are now seeing a growing tendency of serious integration of personal devices into the environment of a vehicle in a seamless way supported by voice and HMI. So you need to make generation changed just to have the right level of performance to offer a complete suite of features.”

He said the evolution of connectivity technology has been a steep learning curve for carmakers who suddenly needed to respond to customer opinions on software rather than traditional vehicle hardware issues.

“Whatever you do in electronic development, and I’ve been in that position for the past 13 years, you get feedback on everything you do, good, bad or indifferent so we took all this onboard,” said Kellerwessel. “For instance, the reaction time of the touchscreen was subject to feedback so we improved that. The gesture recognition for swiping came our way and we needed to adapt the technology to enable this useful gesture in a car environment. Then navigation scale change by pinching and expanding with your fingers became a new requirement from our customers.”

One of the biggest challenges facing carmakers today, said Kellerwessel, is how to keep the software offering fresh and meeting the ever changing expectations of digital savvy customers.

He said: “The question of updateability in this fast paced living we have today in auto electronics is a difficult one. Here with SYNC 3 it has a QNX operating system which is very robust and we have included provision for updating through various means, say, through a wi-fi network when you are near one the system can be updated.”

He said that Ford, for the present at least, don’t foresee a time when the car’s electronic hardware will be updated during its lifespan.

Kellerwessel explained: “We are always looking into updateability with our vehicles and we have to weigh up the benefit to the customer and the opportunity it can offer versus the financial requirement we would have to make it updateable. So we are looking into compatibility matrices while, at this point in time, we focus very much on the software updates.”

That said, he acknowledged there may come a time when hardware updates will have to be made on cars, saying: “The vehicle environment is a very ambitious one for complex electronics where you have to deal with a heavy load of vibration and local mechanical loads as well.

“The availability of new chipsets sometimes drive completely new designs of electronics to improve performance for the customer which may require changes in interfaces in the car.”

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