WATERLOO, Ont. – Bet you didn’t know the latest-generation SYNC 3 connectivity and infotainment system featured in 2020 Ford and Lincoln vehicles owes much of its development to a team of engineers in Canada.
Also bet you didn’t know key elements of that in-vehicle software development were done in Waterloo, Ont., where the Ford Motor Co. has established a new Connectivity and Innovation Centre (CIC).
This week, Ford officially lifted the veil on its impressive, 4-storey facility, which is housed in a former Blackberry building literally adjacent to the University of Waterloo campus and the countless brilliant young engineering minds studying there. Gary Jablonski, chief engineer of SYNC technologies for Ford, acknowledged the engineering talent his staff has been able to recruit from next door was a key factor in locating in this booming technology community.
“The availability of talent has been outstanding,” Jablonski said, adding that the facility has benefitted from a steady stream of highly skilled co-op students from the university’s engineering school. The centre currently employs 150 people but expects staffing will increase 70% through 2020.
Also playing a key role in boosting the area’s engineering talent pool has been the availability of highly skilled former employees of Blackberry, which was based in Waterloo before severe cutbacks hammered the smartphone maker. Rob Maurice, the Waterloo CIC site lead, said more than half of the CIC employees previously worked for Blackberry, including himself.
One of three in Ontario
The Waterloo facility has actually been operating since March 2017, although renovations to the building have just been completed. It’s one of three Ontario-based software development centres – there’s a similar facility in Ottawa, as well as space in Oakville’s Ford of Canada headquarters building – that work in conjunction with Ford’s engineering team in Dearborn, Mich., helping develop connectivity and infotainment software for the SYNC technology.
The three Canadian facilities have been completed in collaboration with the federal and provincial governments, which contributed $100 million, while Ford invested $500 million. The sites are linked together with the Dearborn-based team, with software changes, upgrades and development moving freely among the facilities.
“The work being done here is critically important engineering,” Jablonski said, noting it “is changing the footprint of Ford forever.”
For example, Ford had made a commitment to have 4G Wi-Fi hotspot capability in all its vehicles by the end of this year and, thanks to the work done by the software development team, the automaker is on track to achieve that target.
Jablonski said the growth in SYNC technology has been outstanding since it was introduced in 2008. When he joined the team working on the first-generation system, it consisted of three people, including himself. Now there are more than 500 people working on SYNC development – and that number continues to grow.
Changing consumer priorities
He said the focus on infotainment and connectivity development is in response to changing consumer priorities. Today, shoppers are comparing a vehicle’s technology features to their smartphones, not to competitive vehicles. They want the vehicle’s system to be fast and easy to use, like their phones. They don’t want to have to sift through layers of menus and displays to gain access to specific features.
The new 10-inch, portrait-format display screen features in the newest-generation SYNC 3 system installed in the 2020 Ford Explorer and Escape, which the Waterloo CIC team helped develop, addresses those buyer preferences. It can readily access contact lists, diagnostic files, a range of entertainment sources and numerous other features without having to dig through layers – fast and convenient. It also can deliver feedback from the customer directly to Ford on any software or diagnostic issues he/she may have experienced.
The Waterloo team is currently working on the next generation of SYNC, building a platform for the future, as well as incorporating more diagnostic and analytic features. Other areas being developed include next-generation wireless and voice recognition technologies, Bluetooth applications and unified interface technologies incorporating new Apple CarPlay, Android Auto and voice technologies. Jablonski said consumers can expect to see results of the work in these areas over the next two years. “It’s driving the future of infotainment and connectivity,” he said.
Another area of development involves HMI – human machine interaction. Jablonski said the goal is to reduce driver distraction by using more voice controls and positioning buttons more conveniently on the steering wheel.
Autonomous vehicles are a hot topic in the auto business and the Waterloo CIC site is involved in this area as well. It’s working on C-V2X, a technological system Ford is developing that enables the vehicle to communicate with infrastructure and other vehicles over a cellular network.
During a quick tour of the Waterloo site, the media was invited to visit three of the facility’s working labs, with numerous black drapes shielding sensitive projects from our prying eyes.
The Quality Assurance lab is connected to all four development sites, with up to 500 people contributing code for testing and evaluation every day. The software being developed is sent to the cloud, then automatically downloaded and tested in this lab, which is operating 24/7. During a recent 2-month period, the lab processed 33 million checkpoints.
Next stop was a bunker-like room where Wi-Fi certification is tested. The room is shielded so no Wi-Fi signal can enter or leak out. The testing here ensures that customers can connect their smartphones painlessly through the SYNC system with no pairing or connection issues.
Finally, we checked out a lab where smartphone connectivity is evaluated. Jablonski said the quality of the phone connectivity is critical for consumers, who want that connection to work seamlessly; they don’t tolerate dropped calls. Virtually every brand of smartphone is put through its paces here using a computer-driven testing program that mimics nearly every conceivable connection scenario.
Further SYNC 3 software updates are being evaluated in these labs, including Wi-Fi and Bluetooth technologies that will enable systems such as Apple CarPlay and Android Auto to connect wirelessly to SYNC. Bluetooth technology, in particular, is seen as one of the most important areas of development, especially in addressing driver distraction concerns.
The Waterloo Connectivity and Innovation Centre, along with sister sites in Ottawa and Oakville, will continue to play a key role as Ford continues its drive toward even more advanced technologies for its products.