Friday, September 21, 2007

Sync-ing feeling

Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft Corp. made news this week when they announced a voice-operated computer system called Sync that would be available in Ford Focus 2008 models. Or maybe the cars equipped with this system should be called the “Unfocused”?

The 4-1-1 on Sync is that it allows drivers (or passengers) to run their music players, radios, cell phones, and other gizmos with voice commands. It will read text messages and e-mails to you, although it won’t let you dictate replies. But count on it, that won’t be far off.

Sync is a hoss – it has a 400 MHz microprocessor, 64 MB of RAM and 256MB of flash storage. The option will cost only $395, and if the computer industry is any indication, that price will drop or just be waived to get as many “smart” cars on the road as possible.

Alas, there’s nothing Ford nor Mr. Gates can do to make drivers as smart as their vehicles. With the slew of warnings and studies showing that yakking on a cell phone or even adjusting a radio can be fatally distracting, one has to wonder at the wisdom of enabling so much car talk.

I can see the value in being able to tell your radio to tune in the local sports talk channel or your iPod to access the polka playlist. If the system is easy to learn, maybe even the most tech-challenged person could quickly master the voice commands. If not, though, imagine the frustration as you futilely scream at the speaker to stop playing Milli Vanilli.

Making cell phone calls truly hands-free will be a step forward, although it does nothing to eliminate the mental distraction of yakking with a pal, arguing with the spouse or wondering when dispatch will come back with those !#$#@# directions.

And for all you drivers out there on CBs complaining that people should hang up and drive – I’ve seen you dialing while driving. Mr. Pot, meet Mr. Kettle.

The text messaging thing really worries me, though, precisely because Sync won’t let you dictate a reply. How many people are simply going to sit there and listen to their own personal Kitt recite “4COL TSNF” (“for crying out loud that is so not fair” – if you need more text translations, visit Webopedia) without itching to reply?

Texting while driving is fast becoming a major safety issue, and not just among teens. A late 50s friend of mine just learned to text, and sheepishly admits to doing it while behind the wheel.

If I were Microsoft, I’d be hard at work on Sync 2.0, which would also work with collision avoidance systems and anti-swerve warning systems to help prevent distracted drivers from piling into traffic around them. The genie is out of the bottle on smart cars, and the best we can hope for is that the auto builders and software companies try to protect us from ourselves. And KISS.

For another take on driver distractions, check this out.