Ford Motor Co. recently shipped the 1 millionth vehicle equipped with its Sync multi-media system, and had it not been for the global recession that number could have been higher, says Doug VanDagens, director of the auto maker’s Connected Services Organization.

“I think the industry slowdown probably made (delivering the 1 millionth unit) happen later than expected,” VanDagens tells Ward’s.

A ’10 Ford Fusion Hybrid with the milestone installation was delivered by Ford CEO Alan Mulally to Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer. Microsoft Auto software underpins Sync.

While Sync has proven popular in North America, its next big test comes with its soon-to-be-announced European rollout in 2010.

But VanDagens says there’s strong evidence Europeans are ready to embrace Sync.

“We have done some studies and have been working with our marketing leaders in Europe,” he says. “We’ve looked at trends with regards to what kinds of phones people use and their phone plans, (whether) they buy as many minutes as U.S. consumers and how many people have Bluetooth. And we’ve determined Sync is very appropriate for Europe.”

Following its rollout across much of Europe, Sync will advance into South America and the Asia/Pacific region, VanDagens says.

One hurdle to taking Sync global is the number of languages the software must recognize.

“It’s a challenge, but across Europe, as an example, there are companies and technologies that worked on voice recognition for each of the languages,” he says. “(We have to) make sure we (perfect voice recognition) in every country we’re deploying to.”

VanDagens says connecting to handheld devices such as cell phones and PDAs in foreign countries will not be an issue due to the “plug-and-play nature of Sync.”

Ford plans on making Sync compatible with 15 different languages, including German, Mandarin Chinese, French, Spanish, Arabic, Italian, Dutch and Russian.

Since the auto maker began offering Sync in 2007, the technology has migrated to nearly every vehicle in its lineup, and updates have been made available to consumers. Revised software can be downloaded from a website, syncmyride.com, then transferred by memory stick through the vehicle’s USB port. Vehicle owners also can get Sync updated at Ford dealerships.

The latest Sync download, dubbed Traffic, Directions and Information, now is available for ’10 Ford, Lincoln and Mercury vehicles. The application will not work in earlier vehicles, because initial versions of Sync do not have global-positioning capability, VanDagens says.

Traffic, Directions and Information integrates voice-recognition software, global-positioning technology and a customer’s Bluetooth-capable phone to provide hands-free access to personalized traffic reports, turn-by-turn navigation and up-to-date information, including business listings, news, sports and weather.

Information about the location and severity of accidents, road construction and heavy congestion is sent to a driver’s cell phone in the form of text messages, then broadcast through the vehicle’s sound system using Sync’s text-to-speech capability.

Turn-by-turn directions are displayed on the vehicle’s radio dial.

Traffic, Directions and Information will be available with no monthly subscription fee for three years. After that, Ford says it will charge a nominal, yet-to-be-determined subscription rate.

Meanwhile, VanDagen’s Connected Services Organization group, formed last year, enjoys considerable support from Ford’s upper management. And despite the ongoing recession, funding for the group is unfettered.

“If anything, (support has) accelerated,” he says. “There are no budget cuts; we’re still growing and hiring people.”

bpope@wardsauto.com