BEIJING — June 26, 2013 — Perched in a high-rise above the 3rd ring road in Zhongguancun, Beijing’s technology innovation hub, Joshua Xiang and his team are hard at work. Among the typical desktop tchotchkes are scattered fragments of automotive electronics: speakers, car stereos and touch screens. As a group program manager for the Windows Embedded Automotive team, Xiang leads a team of program managers, along with developers and testers, in building the next release of Ford SYNC, which was launched earlier this year and is on display this week at the Mobile Asia Expo.
Since Ford SYNC was first released in 2007, Ford Motor Co. and Microsoft have led the way in developing an updateable in-car technology solution that helps drivers stay connected and safe while behind the wheel. More than 5 million vehicles have since been sold with Ford SYNC, with support for more than 20 languages.
For this release, Ford wanted a universal code base that could be used across different countries, and regionalized as necessary. This is also the first release of Ford SYNC that was developed and installed in China, and which supports the use of voice commands in Mandarin, making the technology a more feasible solution in the Chinese market.
Unlike many other groups within Microsoft, the Windows Embedded Automotive team works directly with the hardware they’re coding for and interacts closely with the customers — in this case, a team of technical experts at the Ford R&D center in Nanjing that oversees development of all China-specific features.
As an extension of the team in Redmond, Wash., the Beijing branch is part of Microsoft Asia Pacific R&D Group (ARD), Microsoft’s largest R&D center outside the U.S. In addition to developing code and helping globalize the product for use in different markets, the Beijing team was largely responsible for developing the first version of Ford SYNC for battery-powered and hybrid vehicles, which Ford launched globally last summer. And with this next release of Ford SYNC, they are developing China-specific features, getting the code ready for rollout and helping finalize the overall user experience for the Chinese market.
“The China team’s work provides great examples of ARD’s ability to respond to the unique opportunities in the local market while contributing to global products,” said Ya-Qin Zhang, corporate vice president and chairman of ARD.
The Mandarin version of Ford SYNC
The most notable of the new features is Ford SYNC’s support for Mandarin based on research from six different regions. As Xiang points out, developing support for Mandarin isn’t as simple as making a direct translation. With their subtle differences in pitch and accent, tonal languages like Mandarin are an unprecedented challenge for speech recognition engines. Add to that the built-in learning curve needed for speech recognition engines to generate conversational language.
“The challenge with most translation software is that the outcome, while technically accurate, isn’t captured in the same way as a native speaker would put it,” said Xiang. “Our goal was to create a voice recognition system that not only understands the driver’s commands, but also enables a user experience that is seamless and free of distractions.”
Extensive testing was conducted by Ford in 13 cities throughout China. In addition, the Windows Embedded Automotive team worked with Nuance to adjust its speech recognition engine so the user experience would feel more natural to drivers in China. The team also made significant changes to the Ford SYNC user interface to create a translation that flowed well with Mandarin’s distinctive syntax.
In addition to developing the speech and voice recognition support for Mandarin, Xiang’s team also created features that would adapt the navigation system in MyFord Touch to some of the cultural nuances. For example, people in China prefer using landmarks as their point of reference, and street addresses are listed in reverse order from what is common in the U.S. Furthermore, under Chinese law it’s illegal for GPS to provide emergency responders with a person’s exact location. With these things in mind, the team redesigned and developed a navigation interface that would abide by government regulations while providing drivers with an interface that was easy to use.
The perfect laboratory for imperfect driving conditions
As Ford’s primary development partner for Ford SYNC, Microsoft is also responsible for integrating the technologies, which include navigation technology from Telenav and Nuance’s speech recognition engine.
The team is split up into small groups that focus on developing specific Ford SYNC features. In addition, they work closely with colleagues at the main base of Windows Embedded operations, located at Microsoft’s Redmond headquarters. The result is a global, collaborative work environment that blends code development with hands-on troubleshooting to address the requirements and challenges of driving in China.
In Beijing, perpetual construction, street beautification and new drivers on the roads have all merged to create a situation in which the normal rules of the road don’t apply. Drivers routinely back up or stop midstream if they’ve missed a turn, pedestrians pay little heed to traffic, and gridlock is the rule of the day.
Collectively, these factors are the perfect laboratory environment for recreating the imperfect conditions that drivers face around the world. And the break-neck speeds at which new buildings and roads populate Beijing’s cityscape provide a challenge all their own for GPS signals, generating anomalies such as cars floating out to the ocean or disappearing from the navigation screen altogether.
Fine-tuning the best driving experience
In response, the Windows Embedded team worked side-by-side with Telenav engineers to run field tests and fine-tune the navigation system’s dead reckoning algorithm. The team received software code from Telenav, which it integrated into Ford SYNC for a battery of tests that team members run either at their desks, on the “bench” (a complete mockup of Ford SYNC located in the office), or in one of two test vehicles that the team has at their disposal.
Team members work with Ford to develop a routing plan and identify which components of Ford SYNC to focus on. Typically, the plan includes several rounds of weeklong testing, with a blend of driving through the countryside and in different parts of the city where traffic is especially challenging.
And a team of Xiang’s colleagues are constantly testing the latest smartphones to ensure compatibility.
The combination of multiple rounds of testing and dog-fooding on the weekends has created a solid code base for the evolution of Ford SYNC.
“Working directly with Ford, the equipment and other technology providers has given us a better sense of the challenges and helped us address a lot of issues,” said Xiang. “The result is a dependable technology solution that provides the foundation for a connected driving experience in practically any driving environment. And as demand for in-car technologies expands, Microsoft stands ready around the world to help carmakers create driving experiences that suit the needs of the local driver.”