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Exhaust Note #3: Help! I’m so distracted!

It’s a fact of life that we are all “connected” more than ever today. We gab on our cellphones constantly, we check our messages both in front of computers and on the go on our smartphones, and we have more choices than ever over how we are entertained. For the most part, these are all positive changes in our lives and a clear sign of progress.
We live, however, in one of those “in-between” times when society hasn’t yet figured out how to merge progress with basic safety. You know, like back when automotive engineers figured out how to make cars go really fast but hadn’t yet invented the 3-point seatbelt. To what am I referring? I’m talking about being able to use all of these devices that keep us connected safely while driving.
This is a topic that’s been talked about time and time again over the last decade. Initially, people talked about people distracted as they talk on their cellphones, but since then, it’s gotten a lot worse. Now, people scroll through reams of playlists on their iPods (yes, I’m guilty as charged) as they read their email and text messages on their phones (and many try to write messages too). All this, while talking on their handsets while negotiating traffic filled with similarly distracted drivers? Oh dear.
Manufacturers have been trying for years to find ways to reduce this distraction, with mixed results. Among the most ambitious and comprehensive systems that attempt to reach the Holy Grail of connectivity and safety is Ford’s new SYNC, co-developed with Microsoft. It’s available on most Ford, Mercury, and Lincoln products – even the lowly Focus. So, it’s available to everyone, not just those rich guys who can afford all the gadgets.


On paper, this looks like the panacea to cure all of the problems related to distracted driving. It seamlessly and wirelessly connects your cellphone (and its entire address book – and its music library if the phone is so equipped) to the vehicle and not only allows you to talk hands-free, but also receive and send text messages. You can plug in your iPod, Zune, or any other USB music player and SYNC will immediately recognize it. And how do you control all of your gadgetry while on the move? Glad you asked. By voice, of course!
I just spent an evening and morning driving a Mercury Milan V6 AWD equipped with SYNC. I won’t talk about the car as we’ll be covering that in a forthcoming video review. Rather, I want to talk about SYNC and how it works in Orange County rush hour traffic. I’ll make it simple. The voice recognition part of SYNC just doesn’t work.
It fails on two levels. First, it doesn’t understand my commands. I’ll ask it to go to my “User Device”, a.k.a. iPod (why not just make the system understand the word “iPod”?), and it will say “FM play” and switch to FM radio. I’ll ask it to make a call on my cellphone and it will instead ask me if I want to make the display brighter or dimmer. Great concept, but voice recognition technology just isn’t there yet.
Second, it’s obvious that some Microsoft engineer wearing a beanie designed the system logic. All of SYNC’s media control is based on menus and submenus (much like how files are organized on a computer), and each time you press the talk switch to give it a command, it will begin at the top “Main Menu”. So, if you want to make a phone call, you start at the main menu and have to tell it you want the phone menu, after which you can access all of the call functions. Or, if you simply want to listen to another track on your music player, you have to first tell it you want to access the music player, and then you can ask it to play a different song. In other words, anytime you want to tell SYNC to do something, you have to give it TWO commands. There’s about a 3-5 second wait after each command, making the simplest task up to a 10-second operation. It’s so much easier to forgo the voice operation altogether and use the touch screen with tiny icons instead (which incidentally has graphics and fonts with an old Microsoft DOS look and feel. Retro can be cool…this isn’t it).


Therein lies the problem. Whether you try to use the infuriating voice interface or use the touch screen, you’re distracted. And that goes against the whole point of SYNC. I’m sure we’ll have good solutions in the not too distant future that actually work. But in the meantime, we’re not quite there yet. And just like those days when cars had lots of power but not much in the way of safety features, we’re living in a time where we have a lot of computing power at our fingertips but no way to use them safely as we drive.
It’s just as well then that those safety features have gotten really good. Buckle up, everyone!

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