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Ford Gets Microsoft and Sirius to Pimp Its Ride

Ford shows off its Focus model equipped with "Sync" connectivity, which will be available on nearly all Ford, Lincolns and Mercurys by the end of 2008.
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Ford shows off its Focus model equipped with "Sync" connectivity, which will be available on nearly all Ford, Lincolns and Mercurys by the end of 2008.

Mention consumer electronics and cars, and your average CES novice will imagine remote-controlled toys. But Ford Motor had the real deal on display Monday night.

The automaker has signed up some tech heavyweights to help with "Sync," its in-car satellite communications system, and they showed off the goods at the Wynn Las Vegas.

With help from Microsoft , Sirius and others, Ford's car of the very near future is something like a GPS, digital music player, cell phone and voice recognition system on wheels. Ford's is pulling out all the stops in promoting its "Sync" navigation system, even getting Bill Gates to give it a quick nod during his CES keynote address Sunday.

The initial version of Sync will be available on almost all Ford, Lincoln and Mercury cars by the end of 2008. The system, designed by Microsoft, accepts voice commands to, for example, "Play Led Zeppelin."

Drivers can upload music from a variety of players—including Apple's iPod— to their car, and then drill down to their favorite album and favorite song. Ford even teamed with album cover database company Gracenote to make Sync display the album cover art for what they're listening to.

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The Sync system recognizes commands in English, Spanish and French.

Sync also has Bluetooth capability and will download drivers' cell phone contacts. The system can automatically take over ongoing cell phone conversations when a driver enters the car, and then hands those conversations back to cell phone control if a driver stops and gets out of the car.

"There isn't a single phone on the market that can do everything Sync can do," said Gary Jablonski, Ford's product development manager for infotainment systems. "In most cases, if you phone can do it, Sync can do it."

The system also will read text messages to drivers. Sitting in a Ford Focus parked in a Wynn ballroom, Jablonski demonstrated how the system's voice knows how to translate common textisms like "LOL" into the phrase "laughing out loud."

"We actually had an engineer scour the Internet to translate all those abbreviations," he said.

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A more advanced Sync will debut on the Ford Flex SUV over the summer. That version features something called "911 Assist," which is designed to automatically call local 911 whenever the vehicle's air bag deploys. (A ten-second window after air bags deploy will allow drivers to cancel the call.)

Unlike General Motor’s OnStar system, which is available for a monthly fee, 911 Assist will be standard issue on all Lincolns and offered as a purchase option on Fords and Mercurys, Jablonski says. On a Ford Focus, for example, Sync is a $395 option.

For a monthly fee of $6.99 or $3.99 a month, depending on the options chosen, Ford will soon have cars equipped with "Travel Link," from Sirius. Introduced at CES, the system provides real-time information on weather and traffic, and can even direct drivers to the cheapest gas nearby. Ford and Sirius even threw sports scores into the deal.

Travel Link debuts on the 2009 Lincoln MKS this summer, and will be available on multiple Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles by the end of the year.

Editor's note: As part of our extensive coverage of CES, CNBC.com's Brian Clark and Ted Kemp will be at the event and contributing to this special edition of Tech Check.

Questions? Comments? TechCheck@cnbc.com