Ford Motor Co., seeking to beam down wireless software updates to its next generation of cars, has assigned the task to an old, familiar friend: Microsoft Corp.
Microsoft developed the first two generations of Ford's Sync infotainment system before being replaced by Blackberry's QNX for the third iteration, Sync 3. That system, revealed late last year, will start to appear in production cars in 2015 and will be offered across Ford and Lincoln's U.S. lineups by the end of 2016.
The cloud computing deal, announced today at a conference in Atlanta, shows the evolving nature of Ford's relationship with Microsoft, which is pivoting its business under CEO Satya Nadella to focus on selling cloud-based software.
"We've obviously had a good, long relationship with Microsoft," Don Butler, director of connected vehicles at Ford, said in an interview. "Microsoft understands the automotive environment and the kinds of experiences that we'd like to enable."
A car equipped with Sync 3 will be able to connect to the Internet over a Wi-Fi connection and download new features straight onto its hard drive, just as a smartphone or personal computer can. By partnering with Microsoft for cloud services, Ford will be able to host these software updates on Microsoft's global network of data centers, which Butler said will offer a quicker rollout of new features and more reliable downloads around the world.
A small download might be a few megabytes, the size of a single song from Apple Inc.'s iTunes service. But a larger update, like a fresh package of navigation maps or a new graphical display, might be more than a gigabyte -- large enough that it would take a few minutes to download over a home Wi-Fi connection.
Once an owner gives permission, the car would continually monitor the Microsoft Azure cloud service. Any new software will install itself automatically, and notify the driver the next time they start their car. Butler said the approach was based on customer research that showed customers didn't want to oversee the process.
Dealers plan transmitters
Ford and Lincoln dealers will be installing Wi-Fi transmitters outside their stores to give the cars in their inventory the freshest version of Sync 3 without sending a technician car-to-car to install software updates.
"It's all seamless," Butler said. "It's all happening in the background."
Wireless software updates have become a top priority for automakers as customers have gotten used to downloading them on their smartphones.
They seek to follow the example of Tesla Motors Inc., which makes heavy use of over-the-air software updates to activate new features on its cars.
In one instance, late last year, Tesla started selling Model S sedans equipped with cameras and sensors for a sophisticated version of cruise control. It then activated the safety feature, dubbed “autopilot,” using a software update.
Tesla CEO Elon Musk said in a Twitter post this weekend that Tesla will reveal another such update on March 16. This update, he said, will ease Model S owners' anxiety about running out of juice.