Ford caves, offers OnStar-like embedded cellular Sync Connect in 2017 Escape

Ford will offer embedded cellular modems for its cars starting with the 2017 Ford Escape shipping in the spring. Ford calls the feature Sync Connect, an enhancement to the Sync 3 infotainment system now on eight Ford models. Initial features include remote lock and unlock, remote start, vehicle status, and vehicle location. Ford will offer this basic level of service free for the first five years.

Ford follows General Motors and many other automakers with embedded cellular data modems. Since 2008, Ford Sync offered rudimentary services, primarily crash notification, when your smartphone was connected to the car. It was the cheapest way to offer connected services, but now the cost of an on-board modem can be as little as $100. Ford’s upmarket sibling, Lincoln, recently started offering embedded telematics modems.


Sync Connect offers the essentials. More coming later.

“The [Sync Connect] technology helps you seamlessly integrate your vehicle into your lifestyle. Get locked out? Cold outside? Forget where you parked? No problem. Just use your smartphone,” says Don Butler, executive director, Ford Connected Vehicle and Services and a former executive with GM and with Microsoft telematics spinoff Inrix.

The features Ford is implementing initially are the core of what users want, particularly remote unlock and remote start, along with automatic crash notification. Other automakers offer telematics for a monthly fee of $20-$30, with the higher price service including live operator assistance for automated destination downloads to the car’s navigation system.

Ford cites these features in Sync Connect:

  • Remote lock and unlock
  • Remote start and scheduled future start (warm up the car at 7:25 a.m. for a 7:30 departure)
  • Vehicle status: fuel level, oil level, battery level (as if you ever check that one), tire pressure
  • Vehicle location shown on a map to see where you left at a big mall, or to know where the never-home teenager is right now
  • Over-the-air updates for Ford Sync and Sync Connect

All of this is very cool. It’s also Ford playing catch-up with General Motors. GM delivered OnStar in 1996 and spent a decade convincing people that OnStar automatic crash notification was worth twenty bucks a month — it was on if you were in a life-threatening crash — and then focused on the everyday situations of keys locked inside, or warming the cockpit on winter mornings. That’s where Ford is headed initially. Ford technology spokesman Alan Hall adds, “We will expand the features and services available through Sync Connect over time.”

Sync Connect will be free for the first five years of ownership. Ford hasn’t said what it will charge after five years. The price will depend on how many services Ford has in Sync Connect by 2021.

For 911 Assist, for now, it will be the same as on non-Sync Connect cars: In a crash, an emergency call will be made via your cellphone, if you have it paired.

“We will be migrating Sync Connect to the rest of our line-up in the coming years,” Hall said, but there is no specific time frame. Sync Connect requires Sync 3, Ford’s much-revised interface with bigger text and less clutter. It works with Apple CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto, though Ford sees Sync 3 also as a competitor to CarPlay and Android Auto.

Ford has a lot riding on the next Escape

17FordEscape-Titanium_02_HR-300x151Ford Escape is the No. 2 seller behind Honda CR-V among compact SUVs (the fastest growing US vehicle segment) and the No. 2 seller in the Ford lineup behind only the Ford F-150 pickup, with 306,000 Escapes sold last year.

The 2017 model is either the fourth generation of the Escape (as Ford describes it) or a refresh of the third-gen Escape, since it is built on the existing platform.

Ford says 90% of Escape sales will be using start-stop engine technology added for 2017, on a a four-cylinder 1.5 liter turbo (180 hp) or a twin-scroll 2.0-liter turbo (245 hp). The entry model can be had with a 2.5-liter four-cylinder (no turbo). Start-stop improves mileage 4%-6% in urban driving, Ford says.

Driver assistance technology includes adaptive cruise control and forward collision warning with brake support; enhanced park assist for backing into a perpendicular parking spot and pulling into and out of a parallel parking spot; lane-keep alert and assist (to warn, then nudge the car back into lane); driver fatigue alert; blind spot detection; auto high beams; and a hands-free foot-activated liftgate.

Why the move to embedded-modem telematics

With an embedded telematics modem in the car and an external antenna, the car receives a better signal in fringe areas. It also allows the automaker to sell a cellular Internet connection (with better signal quality than your smartphone’s Wi-Fi hotspot) and occasionally sell cellular voice calling minutes (when your phone battery is dead and you forgot the USB cable).

It also lets the automaker provide services, some for fees or commissions from service providers, through the car rather than through a phone. Telematics technology that cost $500-plus in the early days of OnStar can be had for less than $100 now (more for 4G telematics), and there are some cost-saving benefits to the automaker, such as the ability to download software updates for the car and also get advance notification of impending component failures.

Ford actually was an early player in embedded telematics in a joint venture with Qualcomm, called WingCast, that was founded in 2000 and shut down two years later. Ford simply was a decade too early with embedded telematics. Now, WingCast is back, sort of, as Ford Sync Connect, with more modest ambitions initially.