Posted by Jim Martin 14 June 2013
Ford Sync: we test out voice recognition in the 2013 Fiesta
It's 2013, but where are all the flying cars? Damn those lying 80s movies… However, one TV show did manage to predict the future because you can now talk to your car, just like Michael Knight spoke to KITT.
Well, almost. Ford has brought its Sync voice recognition system to the UK after making it available in the US several years ago. We decided to test it out on this year's Fiesta to find out whether it can help to keep you safer on the road, and if you really need it on your next car.
What is Ford Sync?
Sync is a voice-recognition system that allows you to control and use your own mobile devices in the car without taking your eyes off the road. It's a lot like Siri on the iPhone and iPad, or S-Voice on the Samsung Galaxy S3 and S4.
Using just your voice, you can make calls with a compatible Bluetooth mobile phone, control music playback on a USB device, listen to incoming text messages being read aloud (if you have a supported smartphone; the iPhone lacks the necessary Bluetooth features), and also stream music via Bluetooth from a connected phone.
You might expect that Sync would also let you control the car's own entertainment system, but oddly that's not possible. You can't tell the system to tune into a certain radio station, play a CD or adjust the volume. You can do all that easily enough via buttons on the steering wheel in a Sync-equipped vehicle, but it would have been fun to turn on the climate control to 20 degrees or wash the windscreen without lifting a finger. First-world problems, granted, but we still hope to this kind of integration in the future.
How does Sync work?
Once you've connected your phone to Sync using the usual Bluetooth pairing process, you can download your phonebook. After that, you press the voice button on the steering wheel and (assuming you're already in Phone mode, not USB or Bluetooth audio) say "Call Matt Egan".
Any music that's playing, whether from your phone, the radio or a CD will mute, and resume once the call ends. The car's microphone picks up your voice, and the other person's voice comes through the car's speakers.
Impressively, the call will automatically transfer back to your phone if you leave the car, and will route it through the car's microphone and speakers if you were already on a call when you get in the car.
Mostly, the system worked fine in our tests, recognising people's names even when there was some background noise, and even names in different languages. On the occasions when it didn't know who to call, it was simply a case of browsing the phonebook manually, tapping the Info button and listening to the system read out the name to get an idea of the pronunciation it was expecting.
You can change modes, between Phone, Bluetooth Audio and USB/iPod simply by saying those names. When streaming music via Bluetooth, there's only basic play/pause and next/previous track control.
However, when playing music via USB (you'll need to use the USB cable that came with your smartphone for this) you have much greater control. You can choose what to listen to by saying "Play album Dark Side of the Moon" or "Play artist Pink Floyd", for example.
Your music doesn't have to be on your phone, though. You can plug in pretty much any USB drive that runs from USB power, such as flash drives and USB hard drives (note that only FAT- or FAT32-formatted drives will work). Sync supports MP3, WMA, WAV and AAC formats. If you like making playlists, then you'll want to know that it supports .ASX, .M3U, .WPL and .MTP files.
If you have a phone that supports text messaging via Bluetooth (BlackBerry and Android handsets tend to) then Sync can read out incoming messages as well.
Sync can also play music by genre or playlist and it can switch to shuffle rather than playing an album, say, in order. You can also ask, "What's Playing?"
Again, if you have a compatible phone, Sync can set up to call the emergency services on 112 should you have an accident where an airbag goes off or the fuel pump is stopped. As well as informing them that you've been involved in a crash - it will speak in the local language if you happen to be driving in another country - and can also let them know where you are (using your phone's GPS). Currently, Sync knows 19 languages.
All of these functions and more can also be controlled using buttons on the centre console.
As well as these basic, but core, commands, you can use Sync for more functions. You'll have to learn all the commands first: just as with Siri, although it's designed to mimic natural conversation, Sync can only understand you when you say words and phrases it already knows. Unlike Siri, which needs to access the internet to process what you just said to it, Sync processes your voice itself, so there's no worries about being without mobile coverage.
One thing you will need to learn is how to call a contact in your phonebook which has several numbers, for work, home and mobile, for example. You can also get Sync to read out your call history: "Call history missed" and mute the microphone during a call with "Go to privacy".
If you need to call someone who isn't in your phonebook, you can use Sync to dial a number, although chances are that you won't know this number from memory anyway.
Take the time to learn all the commands, and you can do a lot with Sync, from changing system settings to adding or deleting Bluetooth devices.
Photography by D. Tomaszewski