The Ford Motor Company has been struggling to get its Microsoft–based Sync system, which handles everything from voice recognition to navigation to running the stereo, to work properly.
The Microsoft system has been in use at the company since 2007, and during that period, the company has faced everything from poor Consumer Reports grades to derision from car magazines and complaints from owners. Now, finally, Ford has decided to begin divorce proceedings.
Starting with the 2016 model year, Ford will start using a new infotainment system made by Panasonic and containing computers running BlackBerry’s QNX. This is hardly a first for BlackBerry, which holds a dominant position in the embedded systems market in the automotive industry. Those Fords with Sync 3 will start arriving at dealers in late 2015.
One of the things I noticed last March while I was at CeBIT was that the computers in most of the cars I closely examined bore BlackBerry and QNX logos on them. What was interesting at the time and perhaps even more interesting now is that car phone integration was nearly seamless in them. Voice recognition was vastly better than on other cars. At the time, I wondered if there was a way to perform a brain transplant on my Acura, where speech recognition was a challenge on a good day.
Most people don’t realize it, but BlackBerry has been around the automotive market for years, providing the computers and the QNX operating system for most of the German automakers including BMW, Audi and Mercedes Benz. QNX is also running on GM’s OnStar communications system and in computers on Chrysler, Hyundai, Jaguar and Land Rover.
But what’s probably more important to the people who buy the cars is that BlackBerry has been a partner with Apple in creating CarPlay and with Google to create Android Auto, both of which will be available on the Sync 3. The system will also work with Siri Eyes Free and as a result can interface directly with Siri for doing things like looking up restaurants.
Users of those smartphones will able to see familiar icons on the center screen of their cars, and they’ll be able to run some of the apps via the car’s interface. No word yet on whether Ford’s AppLink, which is the software that links Sync 3 to mobile phones, will be this well-integrated with its own BlackBerry 10 OS on new BlackBerry smartphones.
The new Sync 3 software uses a touch screen on the car, and it allows multitouch gestures, which means you can spread your fingers to enlarge an image or pinch to make an image smaller, just like on your smartphone.
Ford Sync 3 to Extend BlackBerry’s Reach in Connected-Car Systems
This would have been nice on the older Sync versions, which had small on-screen buttons and menus that were hard to read. However, BlackBerry working with the phone vendors has made some significant strides in interface design and, as a result, the buttons are bigger and the text easier to read. Overall, the interface is simpler and more intuitive, according to Ford.
“Simplicity has value,” said Ford’s Global Director of Human Machine Interface Parrish Hanna in a prepared statement released by Ford. “Reducing the number of things on-screen also makes control easier and is designed to limit the number of times a driver has to glance at the screen.”
At the heart of the well-thought-out simplicity is BlackBerry’s QNX, which already does such things for other manufacturers. “As a matter of policy we do not discuss the products or product plans of our customers,” a BlackBerry spokesperson told eWEEK, “but we can confirm that the QNX OS will be used in Ford Sync 3.”
“As a leader in software platforms for in-car electronics, QNX Software Systems provides the world’s automakers and automotive Tier 1 suppliers with technology and engineering services for a wide range of in-vehicle systems. Our standards-based software platform is used throughout the auto industry and QNX has worked with Ford on technology that is available in vehicles on the road today,” the spokesperson said.
The idea of using a standards-based approach to software is relatively new in the U.S. auto industry, where an “NIH” (not invented here) approach is common. But in this case auto makers have far more experience with the hardware than with software in their product designs. And when it comes to something like human interface design for software systems, there’s a lot to be said for experience. This is one area where the computer industry has experience in abundance.
But looking past just software, standardization in human interfaces is actually one place where the auto industry is a leader. Think back on the basic design of an automobile, and you’ll see standards in the placement of the steering wheel, the accelerator, the brakes and the clutch (on cars that have one). This standardization took place over decades of development with some outside prodding by the government.
But without standardization, cars today would be more difficult to drive especially when people had to change from one car to another, and thus more dangerous. Over time, the benefits were obvious. This same force is happening in the design of the digital interfaces on auto control systems where driver distraction has already become a significant issue. Clearly, this was the right move for Ford, and one more feather in BlackBerry’s cap.