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Talking cars: are you ready for a vehicle that answers back?Back

Cars attract more abuse than nearly any other everyday machine. The number of expletives directed at them when they break down or nurse a punctured tyre more than beats the cursing directed at irons, toasters, washing machines and other household contraptions.

So when Ford announced the latest evolution of its Sync technology, with boss Alan Mulally missing part of the Geneva Motor Show to unveil the system at a technology conference in Germany, it gave us pause for thought. Do people really want talking cars? And is this the clearest example yet that technology is ruling the development of new cars?

The Sync system promises to understand 10,000 voice commands to control audio, telephone and satnav systems as well as accessing information about the surrounding area. It will also be able to recognise 19 languages when it is fitted to new cars from next year – with the new Focus one of the vehicles that it will make an appearance in.

It is by far the most complex and sophisticated system of its kind to be found on an affordable car and Ford have claimed that it will be able to handle Britain’s regional accents with ease. Beyond simply changing tracks on the stereo, the system will also be able to read out text messages behind the wheel and in the event of an accident, identify exactly where in Britain or Europe it has happened and automatically call a local emergency number in the correct language.

However, we think all that automated brilliance is outweighed by another feature. If you fail to give a command when prompted, the voice in the car gives an electronic sigh. No matter how good this system is, its ability to talk back, sigh and misunderstand commands could be a major annoyance.

Also, the decision by Ford’s Chief Exec to prioritise a technology conference over the world’s most glamorous motor show is also a sign of the times. Ford traditionally unveils its new models in Detroit, and only showcased its production-ready B-Max MPV at the Geneva Show, eschewing the concept-laden stands of other manufacturers.

Are we moving into a world where iPod connectivity is more important than a car’s mechanicals? And if so, does it matter, or is the car simply catching up with technology many of us now take for granted in our everyday lives?

Image credit: Ford in Europe

Posted by Neil Addley on 11/03/2011