Ford Motor Co.’s exclusive right to Microsoft Corp.’s Sync technology expires in November, and the auto maker is making a final push to leverage the technology in its third-generation navigation system.

Microsoft already has announced a deal with the Hyundai-Kia Automotive Group that will begin offering similar features as Sync beginning in the ’10 model year.

But it’s unlikely the system will be an exact copy of Ford’s technology, which allows for hands-free operation of cellular phones, iPods and other MP3 devices, says Phil Magney, president & co-founder of Telematics Research Group Inc.

“The package that Ford was able to bring to market is what made it unique,” Magney says. “Of course, other auto makers could bring in the same features, but everybody will want to do it slightly different and optimize it for their human-machine interface and make it consistent with the brand.”

Magney says Ford has done an excellent job leveraging the Sync technology, which has helped cast the auto maker as a provider of cutting-edge technology, and perhaps more importantly, helped it sell vehicles.

When competing auto makers finally get access to the Sync technology, there will be a learning curve, Magney says, as Ford has the advantage of having worked with the system for more than a year.

“I would say it’s given Ford a bit of jumpstart on that type of solution,” he says. “All indications are that they’re very pleased with all the interest in Sync. There’s no doubt in my mind that Ford got its money’s worth on that exclusivity.”

Now Ford is hoping to build on its momentum from Sync with the addition of Travel Link to its new navigation/entertainment system.

The technology integrates Sync with the Sirius Travel Link navigation system, which offers consumers a variety of data, including current gasoline prices, real-time traffic, coast-to-coast weather conditions, sports scores and movie listings.

The system also provides more obscure information, such as skiing conditions, Ford spokesman Alan Hall says.

“You can pull up weather and wind conditions, base depth, snow conditions and the amount of snow in ski areas around the nation.”

Travel Link also offers a “juke box” feature, which allows the storage of up to 2,400 songs on a 10-gigabyte internal hard drive, Hall says, noting the system enables a CD to be “ripped” to the hard drive.

Once the CD’s tracks have been transferred, the album’s cover art will be displayed on the navigation screen, a feature that comes courtesy of Ford’s partnership with Gracenote Inc., a supplier of music identification and playlist technologies.

The system will allow only CDs to be copied to the hard drive and not songs from personal MP3 players, Hall says.

“It can’t be downloaded music, because it’s a copyright issue,” he says. “So you have to actually own the CD.” Saved music on the hard drive can be accessed by voice command. The system also can show DVDs when the vehicle is in park.

In addition to Travel Link, Sync gets upgrades, including 911 Assist and vehicle-health reports.

With 911 Assist, authorities automatically are contacted via cell phone in the event of a serious accident that involves airbag deployment.

Before placing the emergency call, Sync provides a 10-second window that allows a vehicle occupant to cancel the call. A pre-recorded message will play when the call is answered, and a vehicle occupant then is able to communicate directly with the operator, Ford says.

Unlike General Motors Corp.’s OnStar telecommunication system, which also provides emergency assistance, 911 Assist is provided free of charge.

Additionally, consumers can access a dedicated website to establish their preferences for vehicle health reports. The reports are generated from information provided by the vehicle’s major control modules, after which data is sent to Ford through the user’s cell phone. The entire process is free of charge, takes just a few minutes and includes routine checks of more than two dozen vehicle systems, Ford says.

Magney says Travel Link and Sync are indicators of where in-car telematics are heading.

“I tend to think telematics services provided by broadcast methods will become increasingly popular going forward,” Magney says. “And that’s what Travel Link does, it provides weather and other elements, and on top of that, by integrating Sync into the functionality of the navigation system, it’s another positive move for customers who want that functionality.”

Although both Travel Link and Sync work in conjunction, they are actually based upon two different platforms, which Ford has strived to integrate, Hall says.

Xanavi Informatics Corp. supplies the technology used for Travel Link, while Sync utilizes Microsoft Auto software. Both employ different voice-recognition technologies, although Ford has integrated them well enough that they are nearly indistinguishable from each other, Hall says.

“We’ve been able to engineer it so they sound exactly the same and the commands you give are the same,” he says. “The same commands are there so the customer doesn’t have to learn a duplicate set of terms or be concerned about what system they’re using.”

The next-generation navigation system now is available on the ’09 Ford Escape and Mercury Mariner cross/utility vehicles, which are equipped with 6.5-in.(16.5-cm) screens.

The upcoming ’09 Ford Flex CUV and Lincoln MKS sedan boast 8-in. (20.3-cm) screens and Ford’s new human-machine interface, which Hall says is more intuitive.

The new system will be available on most Ford vehicles as a $1,995 option, the same price as the previous generation.

bpope@wardsauto.com