Ford Ditches Microsoft For QNX In Latest In-Vehicle Tech Platform

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Ford today took the wraps off Sync 3, its next-generation, in-car technology package that is, as you’d expect, faster, sleeker and much improved over the old one. It’s also more intuitive and easier on the eyes, and integrates smartphone apps better. But the biggest change is under the hood: Sync 3 is powered by QNX instead of Microsoft Auto.

When Ford first launched the Sync prior to the recession, it was novel in the infotainment space. The platform announced today, several years after version 2.0, is Ford’s third go at infotainment, and from my limited experience with the Sync 3, it’s dramatically better than its predecessors.

Previous versions of Sync are a mess. Most lately seen in the MyFord Touch variation, it combined a touchscreen interface with smartphone capabilities. It was a mishmash of colors, features and control schemes. Worse yet, it is slow. There was a notable amount of lag. Consumer Reports advised readers not to buy a new Ford or Lincoln because of MyFord Touch. It’s that bad.

MyFord Touch and Sync needed a complete overhaul.

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Speaking to a small group of journalists deep in a Ford compound, Raj Nair, VP and CTO of Ford, said this new platform was the most researched product in Ford’s history. They received feedback from 22,000 consumers and Ford owners. It took 18 months to develop the infotainmenet system and nearly everything is different from the previous version.

Gone is the Microsoft Auto platform of old and in its place is a QNX operating system running on Texas Instruments hardware. Sadly, since the new Sync runs on a totally different hardware, vehicles that shipped with the old version will not get the new hotness.

The change in platform is noticeable. Sync 3 is now snappy and responsive. The hint of lag is gone. It’s clean and cohesive. Switching between screens and menu options is a smooth task and reminiscent of modern mobile devices — which is apparently what Ford was going to.

Nair explained that Ford engineers and designers benchmarked the user experience against smartphones and tablets. Sync provides similar functionality, including pinch-to-zoom, smooth scrolling and, most noticeably, a persistent menu bar located at the bottom of the screen.

Up until now Sync used a novel but convoluted menu scheme. To access the four different parts of the system, the menu buttons were located in the four corners. It made selecting these options easy while not looking. Want the radio? Hit somewhere in the bottom left of the screen. But the controls were not intuitive. I couldn’t figure it out the first time I used it, and for an automaker courting buyers from 19 to 91, everything needs to be trendy but obvious.

The new Sync now works like a tablet. There are six buttons at the bottom of the screen. Hit one and go. They’re always visible except when navigating, when they sink into the bottom of the screen to reveal more of the map.

The control scheme is reminiscent of Chrysler’s Uconnect, but Ford’s design is more understated. For better or worse, it’s cleaner and less flashy bordering on boring. But it works, and that’s the most important thing.

Sync now makes it as easy to use a smartphone app as the FM radio. One of the bottom nav bar buttons takes users to an app menu and media apps like Pandora will also have a button on the audio tab next to the AM and FM option. Ford discovered that 80 percent of its drivers own smartphones and this redesigned app scheme should allow for easier use of smartphone apps while driving.

Ford worked with select app developers for the Sync 3 launch. When it hits the first cars, Spotify, Pandora, Stitcher, NPR One, SiriusXM Radio and iHeartRadio Auto will be available.

Aside from the new look, map search seems to be one of the most improved aspects. When searching for a business or point of interest, the system will present suggested locations. For instance, if a user starts typing a word that starts with “W,” it will suggest Walmart, Walgreen or the like. This information is provided by Telnav and is stored locally along with the map data.

Ford took steps to improve the voice search but the overall scheme is the same. Users have to step through spoken menu options to get the best result. Thankfully it’s now smart enough to identify points of interest without the driver speaking the full name. For instance, Sync 3 should recognize “Detroit Airport” instead of requiring “Detroit Metropolitan Airport.”

Software updates come by way of Wifi. All cars equipped with the new version of Sync will also be loaded with a Wi-Fi receiver, allowing Ford to push software updates to Sync. But only Sync. Nair stated emphatically that there is a “hard and fast” firewall between Sync and “mission critical systems” in the car. Several times a month, when in a known Wi-Fi network, the car will check to see if an update is available and, if so, download it without intervention from the owner.

At launch, map updates are not free. A Ford representative told me that the company is exploring all business models.

Ford’s upscale brand Lincoln will also receive the new infortainment platform but with a different color palette. It will have the same capabilities, though.

Ford is still exploring all options with Android Auto and Apple CarPlay. I was told that both are still on Ford’s roadmap. This new version of Sync packs improved Siri integration, but it’s nowhere as robust as Apple’s own in-vehicle offering.

I spent just a few minutes interacting with Sync 3, but it was immediately apparent that it is a big improvement over its predecessor. Sync 3 isn’t as flash as infotainment systems from Audi or BMW. It’s not as sleek as Chrysler’s Uconnect, yet it works well. And for most buyers that’s all they want. It will roll out to new vehicles starting next year.