OnStar SyncFor the 2011 model year, two Detroit automakers are going toe-to-toe with advanced in-car electronics systems: It’s GM OnStar vs. Ford Sync. For over a decade, OnStar by GM has offered a host of operator assisted features to make mom feel safe behind the wheel. Ford Sync was developed in conjunction with Microsoft to provide voice-activated phone and media features. The two systems had very little in common--but that was then. Today’s 2011 OnStar and Sync are going to converge in a veritable clash of affordable production drive assistance systems.

Ford Sync is moving into OnStar territory for the 2011 model year with services like 911 assistance and turn-by-turn directions. But Ford’s version of these services is cheaper and leaner than GM’s. To understand how the two systems differ, you must first understand how they connect you to the outside world while you’re in the driver’s seat.

Ford uses Microsoft software to read information from your smartphone while you drive. Your phone’s wireless connection is how Sync reaches the outside world. Any cost associated with Sync doesn’t take into account your cell phone bill. If you already have a monthly cell phone bill, Sync may look like a better choice for you.

With Sync, you’re in the middle of an in-car web of communication between you, your cell phone and your Ford Sync head-unit via Bluetooth.

OnStar on the other hand has a phone built-in to your vehicle. This phone comes with a monthly fee and the amount depends on the feature package you buy. The biggest technical difference between the two systems is that with OnStar you can leave your cell phone at home--but Sync is a voice-activated bridge between you and your smartphone while driving.

Ford Sync’s Traffic and Directions Information is free for three years then $60 a year. GM requires you buy the Directions and Connections package with OnStar at only $10 for the first year but $28 per month after that. 

For the extra cost, GM gives customers the edge in reliability with navigation and emergency assistance. Live OnStar operators stand by ready to help you out with the GM option. While with Ford, the only thing standing-by is Sync software.

Your OnStar system comes with built-in GPS capability so in the event of a crash, operators at GM are notified and already know your exact location. Since Sync relies on your cell phone, if it doesn’t have GPS capabilities, 911 is left to triangulate your location from nearby cell towers.

If you’re accessing directions in your new Ford, the experience will be much different from OnStar here too. Upon request, you’ll download directions from a centralized Ford server to your smartphone, and then Sync reads your directions to you. The reliability can be suspect because the whole system uses voice recognition (VR) to understand what you’re asking for and text to speech (TTS) software to read back your directions. Although vast improvements are being made every year in VR and TTS, neither is perfect given today’s technology.

The result of these imperfections is that sometimes Sync might not understand your commands as reliably as a live operator--this is a breakdown in VR. Conversely at times it’ll be difficult for you to understand exactly what Sync’s perky female voice is trying to tell you, this is a flaw in TTS.

Like the adage says--you pay for what you get. Turn-by-turn navigation assistance isn’t Sync’s forte. Its pedigree is that of a media player, more adept at playing MP3s you request while on a road trip than offering real-time assistance.

The clear winner in turn-by-turn navigation and 911 emergency response is OnStar, but at significantly greater cost.

In the future you can expect to see more crossover between Sync and OnStar systems. Ford may have made its entry this year into OnStar territory with navigation and assistance, but its true strength is Microsoft powered infotainment.

But OnStar is also evolving. The GM system is teaming up with Google Android to offer more Sync-like features in future versions. There have already been Android apps announced for the upcoming Chevy Volt. Volt owners will get real-time maintenance information on their car from an app running on their cell phone.

The future of all car tech is moving fast.