Ford seeks car that is fluent in Putonghua

PUBLISHED : Friday, 18 November, 2011, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 18 November, 2011, 12:00am


Ford Motor is gearing up to sell cars on the mainland that may understand the various Chinese dialects better than many mainlanders.

Somewhere in a room in Chongqing, people from all over the mainland are currently putting Ford's first Putonghua-enabled voice-activated system through the paces prior to next year's launch of the new Ford Focus, the first mainland-made car to feature the technology.

The goal is to help the system, called Sync, better parse the wide range of accents among speakers of the language, from Beijingers' drawling 'r's' to Southerners' tendency to blur the distinction between syllable sounds like shi and si (the 'h' gets lost in translation).

'Voice is a really powerful component,' said Ed Pleet, Ford's head of connected services in Asia and Europe. 'We are trying to make sure that it is tuned such that it works with as many of the dialects as possible.'

On the mainland, that will include recognising at least six regional Putonghua accents, Pleet says.

The mainland market for smart automotive voice systems - which typically features voice-controlled phone calls, entertainment, navigation, emergency and other services - is relatively new but it is growing fast. General Motors' OnStar service has proved popular since launching two years ago, while most other firms, including Toyota, BMW and Hyundai, offer similar voice systems as standard or optional equipment.

'We see countless stories of people in China spending what might be a month's salary to buy the latest iPhone,' says Pleet. 'There is such a high premium placed on connectivity, and we look at that being integrated with the car and the low price point we plan to set for the system. And we think this is going to be something that people really want.'

Ford's Sync sells in the US for US$295 and features a computer-generated voice that allows the car to take commands from, and talk to, its driver and passengers. It also lets you call a human operator to ask for directions - a service that is free in the US for the first three years and costs US$5 per month after that.

The system can synchronise with a smartphone in your pocket over Bluetooth to read your text messages to you, play the music you select, and even call an ambulance automatically if you crash, providing rescuers your GPS co-ordinates. It recognises over 10,000 voice commands.

'You can swear at it, but that's typically not among the voice commands it recognises,' Pleet says jokingly.

He said Sync is also programmed with a number of canned responses to mobile-phone text messages, including the Chinese version of, 'I'll call you back later, I am driving now.'