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Ford adds OnStar-like Operator Assist

Speaking to a live operator is the latest feature of Ford's voice-activated Sync Services. Drivers can use Operator Assist to look up a business listing and get turn-by-turn directions sent to their car.

Ford adds new services to SYNC(R) through the cloud-based app Traffic, Directions & Information (TDI), giving users on-demand access using simple voice commands to stock quotes, movie listings, horoscopes, and airlines, hotels and rental car companies. (low resolution image) (05/28/2010)

The battle between telematics services is starting to heat up with Ford treading into GM's territory by adding live operator assistance to Sync.

Ford's cloud-based Sync Services is an automated system that lets drivers use voice commands to look up businesses, directions, traffic updates, and other information, such as sports scores, stock quotes, and horoscopes. Sync Services can send turn-by-turn directions to vehicles.

However, even with 14 million business listings, Sync Services isn't perfect. Looking up nearby businesses or entering directions is a hit-or-miss experience, and around the third or fourth time you scream "Starbucks" into the microphone, you start to realize the beauty of OnStar's live operators. The new Operator Assist feature should give drivers the best of both worlds.

Currently in beta testing, Operator Assist gives drivers the option of connecting to a live operator while using Sync Services to find a business listing or look up directions. Operator services are provided by telematics company MyAssist, which can look up an address or business listing for the driver and send turn-by-turn directions to the vehicle. The operator can also send business listing information via text message to a mobile phone, or connect occupants to the phone number of the business.

All vehicles equipped with Sync Services automatically have access to this new feature. Sync Services is free for three years, and customers who choose to continue the subscription after the complementary period pay $60 per year.

The new feature ups the ante for GM, which provides a similar service, but for a lot more money. OnStar is available in most new GM vehicles and free for one year, but then costs $299 per year to get operator assisted turn-by-turn navigation services. The main difference between Ford and GM's offering is that OnStar operators are only a button-push away. With Ford's Sync Services, Operator Assist isn't a first-line command, which means the driver needs to use voice commands to connect to Services and then choose Business or Directions before asking for an operator.

Infiniti also announced a telematics service featuring live operators, similar to OnStar. The Infiniti Personal Assistant service lets Infiniti owners call an operator through their own phone, and so can be used outside of the vehicle. Operators can give directions, look up business addresses and movie times, offer a weather forecast, and other data. But Infiniti's system is not integrated with the vehicle's navigation system.