Ford Motor Co. says its in-vehicle multi-media system, Sync, is capable of remotely downloading software fixes, in much the same way a system developed by Hughes Telematics for Mercedes-Benz vehicles does.

“Our architecture allows for over-the-air (software upgrades). It's very possible to do that,” says Jim Buczkowski, director-electrical and electronics systems. “We haven't chosen to do that, but everything is there and it is capable.”

For now, Sync users will have to visit their dealerships to receive software upgrades.

At the 2008 International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas, Ford and its Sync development partner Microsoft Corp. announced the system now is ready for free software upgrades, including “911 Assist” and “Vehicle Health Reports.”

Like General Motors Corp.'s OnStar in-vehicle communications system, 911 Assist will alert authorities in the case of airbag deployment. However, unlike OnStar, a subscriber-based service, there is no additional charge for 911 Assist.

“911 Assist allows the Sync system to detect when an airbag deploys and then it goes through the user's cell phone to 911, with no service fee and no third-party call center,” Buczkowski says. “And if the user's cell phone has GPS capability, it uses that. If not, it uses a triangulation system.”

Sync's new Vehicle Health Report option also borrows a cue from OnStar, which is capable of producing vehicle diagnostic reports to owners, but with one notable difference.

Whereas OnStar provides owners with monthly vehicle diagnostic e-mails, Sync users will be required to access a website, syncmyride.com, to get relevant information. Vehicle Health Reports are free of charge.

The two new Sync offerings, along with future developments — which Buczkowski says will be made available every six months to a year — are designed to give OnStar a run for its money.

“We believe it's a very competitive product to OnStar but with some differences. It's a great value,” Buczkowski says. “It's also not reliant on a dedicated network that requires a subscription.”

Ford expects nearly 1 million Sync-equipped vehicles to be on the road by early next year.

Meanwhile, Ford at the CES reveals more information on Travel Link, a next-generation navigation system originally unveiled on the Lincoln MKS sedan at the L.A. auto show.

Developed in conjunction with Sirius Satellite Radio, Travel Link provides up-to-the-minute information on current gas prices, traffic, coast-to-coast weather conditions, sports scores and movie listings.

Travel Link also offers a “juke box” feature, which allows for up to 2,400 songs to be stored on an internal hard drive.

Following the introduction of the MKS this summer, the Travel Link service will be offered on Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles with a Sirius Satellite radio subscription.

Ford at CES also announces it will become the first auto maker to offer factory-installed HD Radio technology as a standard or optional feature, and has selected Sony to be its exclusive in-car audio supplier for Ford and Mercury vehicles.

Lincoln vehicles will continue to feature THX audio systems, Buczkowski says.

“We've argued that we've changed the way people use devices in cars,” he says. “We want to be seen as a leader in this industry, and I think we are.”

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