Ford SYNC voice-control upgrade understands you even if you talk funny

Fuzzy search makes it better at guessing what you're saying, but it still can't compare to the voice features on iPhones and Android phones.

Even the techiest cars today have clunky voice features compared to what you'll experience on an iPhone or Android phone. When Ford updated its SYNC infotainment system (to version 3.6.2) in August, it claimed to have improved the speech recognition. We just got a chance to try it while driving the 2014 Fiesta ST.

In recent commercials for SYNC, a trendy-looking driver jumps into the car and calls forth music by mainstream acts like Michael Bolton or The Strokes. That's too easy, we thought, so we threw more eclectic band names at our SYNC system: Sigur Rós, Yamantaka, Amor de Días, and Waxahatchee.

SYNC didn't blink--it nailed every one. Of course, it was prepared. When we connected our iPhone to the system via USB, it downloaded our playlist for indexing and had all those band names for ready reference. But what also helped was the system's new support for "fuzzy" search, meaning you could say a word incorrectly, and SYNC would still have a good chance of returning the correct result.

In our attempts, even when we purposely botched Sigur Rós (here's the correct pronunciation), SYNC still found the right artist. The only complication was a new Minneapolis band called Poliça. We pronounced it "polika," but SYNC understood us only when we pronounced it "police-ah".

The software upgrades also reach into the navigation system. Most require that you state the street name, house number, and city in succession to get directions--a tedious process. SYNC likewise walks you through scripted prompts. Ford claims the new SYNC version can understand "one-shot" destination commands: For instance, you can set up a Home destination in SYNC and say "go Home," and it knows what and where you mean. You can also ask for directions even when using another SYNC screen. However, you still have to use the SYNC's prompts--you can't just pepper it with random navigation requests or addresses.

Trying to fool SYNC's fuzzy search could be a fun car game, but Ford and other automakers still have a way to go before their systems can handle the more natural language we already use with smartphones. By that time, for all we know, phones will have moved on to gestures or eye movements, and cars will be playing catchup again.

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John Brandon

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