DEARBORN, MI – Ford next year plans to offer its Sync multimedia system outside North America, with the capability to operate in 19 languages through voice recognition.

The system, based on the Microsoft Auto software platform, was designed to be highly flexible, but reconfiguring the voice-recognition technology to accommodate numerous languages and different dialects proved no easy task.

“It (was) a great challenge,” John Schneider, chief engineer-infotainment, tells Ward’s at a recent event here. “There was some art and science to it.”

The close proximity of European countries was one of the more significant obstacles. For example, in the case of a German motorist driving in Italy, the system has to provide directions in German, but use the correct Italian pronunciation for street names.

Furthermore, Sync has to be able to recognize different accents, local dialects and vocabulary within a specific language.

“We had to make sure the system would behave as people expect in different countries and different cultures,” says Mark Porter, supervisor-Sync product development.

Text message acronyms had to be addressed. In the U.S. a customer may text “LOL,” short for “laugh out loud.” But for Italian customers, LOL would have no meaning.

As a result, region-specific acronyms were developed. For example, “CVD,” short for “Ci vediamo dopo” (“See you later” in Italian), was added to Sync.

“We had to solicit local, native-speaking input for common abbreviations used in (text) messages, as we support different units of distance and date formats,” Porter says.

Because one of Sync’s most popular features allows music to be selected via voice commands, foreign song titles and artist names had to be identifiable to the system.

Making it even more complex, a German customer, for instance, may have songs on his MP3 player by German, America and Spanish artists.

Languages Sync is able to recognize include English (U.S., U.K. and Australian), French (European and Canadian), Spanish (European and U.S.), Portuguese (European and Brazilian), German, Italian, Dutch, Russian, Turkish, Arabic, Korean, Japanese, Mandarin Chinese and Taiwanese Mandarin.

A multinational version of Sync’s 911 Assist feature also was developed. When an accident occurs, 911 Assist relays the vehicle’s location to emergency responders using the onboard global-positioning system.

In North America, the system is able to transmit emergency messages in English, Spanish and French.

The European Emergency Assistance feature works similarly, but calls 112, the European equivalent of 911. Ford says it is the “most advanced system of its type available,” claiming it works in twice as many European countries as any other emergency-call service.

Developers (Ford worked with voice-recognition partner Nuance to perfect the device) faced numerous challenges due to Europe’s high concentration of multiple languages, borders and emergency services, as well as the varying levels of technology at emergency-call centers.

After Sync sends the emergency call, hands-free communication is made available so vehicle occupants can speak directly to the emergency operator.

Although the system still is being tweaked, Schneider says Sync is able to communicate to the operator in the local language, while continuing to speak with the occupant in his preferred language.

“There were some challenges, such as what do you do if you’re on a border?” Schneider says. “But it was more about understanding what the market would be like, because the system is easily adapted.”

Ford says it will launch Sync in Europe first on the new Focus small car. The system will then migrate to other vehicles in its global lineup, although details have not been announced.