Ford Reaches for the Cloud with Updated Sync

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Ford was an early entrant into the infotainment world and is about to launch an all-new version of its Sync system that company officials claim will make it as flexible and powerful as today’s smartphones by linking to the cloud, while adding some unique advantages.

  • Ford will update its Sync system to connect to the cloud to get real-time capabilities for things like weather and traffic.
  • The new system will allow it to update vehicle software, in some cases making remote recall repairs.
  • The industry, as a whole, is expected to adopt “over-the-air,” or OTA updates.

Dubbed Sync4, the update not only will add features like music streaming but expand the capabilities of Ford’s voice command technology so motorists will be able to speak in plain English, much as they do with voice assistants like Apple’s Siri and Amazon’s Alexa.

The update also will allow Ford to send over-the-air (OTA) updates, much like today’s smartphones. These will allow the automaker to update software controlling virtually every digital system on the vehicle, from its infotainment system to the electronic engine and transmission controllers. Ford also will be able to upload new features that weren’t available when a car was purchased.

“The cloud connection with Sync will change the game for us,” said Todd Hoevener, Ford’s Director of Advanced Product Creation.

The Sync4 system will begin rolling out early next year. Ford officials declined to say what products will get the updated technology but indicated it will become the norm on all-new vehicles, as well as many models getting mid-cycle updates.

Mine’s bigger. The new version of Sync will offer buyers a base, 8-inch display, as well as 12- and 15-inch touchscreens. (Photo: Ford)

Among other things, two new touchscreens, one 12-inch, the other 15 inches, will be introduced, though base versions of Sync will continue to come with an 8-inch screen. Meanwhile, significant changes will be made under the skin to allow OTA updates access to a vehicle’s far-flung network of microprocessers.

Users should immediately notice the difference. Among other things, maps will be updated constantly, as opposed to conventional onboard navi systems that may show roads that are well out of date. Sync4 vehicles will still get built-in map software in case they drive out of range of the cell towers needed to send data to the vehicle. Traffic information should be much more accurate, promised, John Vangelov, the Manager of Modern Features for Ford’s digital technology unit, and now cover surface streets as well as major highways.

But the addition of OTA technology could be the real breakthrough. It would allow minor tweaks, such as expanding the range of weather forecasts that can be popped up on the Sync4 display.

Lifting a page from the Tesla playbook, Ford also will be able to upload software to directly fix problems, in some cases dealing with recall issues that, until now, would have required an owner to take their vehicle in for service.

Tesla was the first automaker to make use of over-the-air, or OTA, technology to update vehicle software. (Photo: Tesla)

In turn, said Don Butler, the head of the automaker’s Connected Car operations, that could help Ford “reduce (our) warranty expense.”

Taking things a step further, Ford could also send owners new features, and possibly activate others that weren’t turned on when the vehicle was purchased. Many of today’s latest safety features share the same onboard hardware and just use different software. An example is blind spot detection which, on some models, is offered as an option. All-new safety functions might also be offered – for a fee.

Tesla was the first automaker to use OTA technology to update onboard functions. It even used the technology to boost the range of vehicles when owners were facing hurricanes and natural disasters.

Ford’s Sync4 may get a leap on its more traditional competitors, but “You’ll see the rest of the industry going in this direction over the next couple years,” said Sam Abuelsamid, a principle analyst with Navigant Research.  General Motors and Volkswagen have confirmed they are preparing similar technology.


Adding OTA technology means vehicles will become smarter, listen to plain English commands, introduce new features and permit remote repairs that could help motorists avoid service calls.

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