A few months back I bought a new car from Ford and it came with the Ford Sync system. For the uninitiated this system is evolution of the car radio combined with climate control, navigation and a phone interface. I took a look at a lot of systems when I bought this car because, from my perspective, the technology stuff in the car is the most important part. Years ago the quality of cars from different manufacturers was highly variable but these days they all have wheels, they all have gas tanks which don’t explode when you crash them. Of the systems I examined Sync was head and shoulders above the rest.

What do you get with Sync? First off you get navigation. There is nothing too special about the navigation system. I know it’s crazy to say that considering how amazing it is to have an encyclopedia of maps and locations at your fingertips in a vehicle. However times are a changing and GPS is common place even on $300 phones. On an expensive car I expect no less.

The entertainment system is really good and the one place where I feel like the voice control works well. My version of sync allows for the regular radio frequencies as well bluetooth and USB. And it actually works! Even with my crummy Windows phone which I’ve never managed to get working on another car. I can even tune the radio to a frequency just by talking to it.

Climate control is a total disaster of user interface design. Look at all these buttons!

Climate control disasterClimate control disaster

Still it works just fine and I’m pretty sure that there is a button in there somewhere to turn the inside of the car into one of those hurricane booths you see in the mall. I’m going to find it eventually.

The phone interface is the best part though. I mentioned earlier that it works with my phone and in fact it even reads text messages to me. That’s impressive because it doesn’t do that with my wife’s iPhone. I’ve never looked into it but I imagine there are a series of bluetooth protocols which govern how phones and cars interact. Seems strange that there would be a defect which would mean that the iPhone doesn’t work as well as the WP7 phone.

So for all this is the sync system good? Yes! Is the system amazing? Nope. There is a long way to go with these systems. What kills me is that I’m going to keep this car for a decade by which time the built in system will be so comically out of date I’ll be able to sell the interface as being the same one used on the Nina and the Pinta(not on the Santa Maria, though, that ship used PalmOS).

This sort of thing is difficult for car companies. The steering wheel in a 1982 Volvo is about the same as the steering wheel in a 2013 Volvo. Nobody is coming back to Volvo and asking for a steering wheel update. They have no experience with the rapid product cycles of technology.

If I was designing a car computer I would make it modular and plug-able. Heck, I would make it a tablet. So long as there was a consistent interface to the car (USB) then the human interface is pluggable. Why is nobody doing that? There must be smart technical people inside car companies who have come up with this approach. I wish that somebody would let them free to innovate. It had better be done before all the smart folks move over to Tesla.