It was exactly two years ago at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) that Ford unveiled its revolutionary low-cost, high-function voice-activated Sync system for linking people's Bluetooth electronics with the car, and by the end of this year a million Sync'd Fords, Lincolns, and Mercurys will be on the road. At this year's CES show, Ford and Microsoft presented the next generation of Sync, which greatly expands the capabilities of the system by including a GPS antenna and all the related hardware.

Key features include:

* Traffic. Drivers in 95 markets nationwide can program Sync to send traffic reports to their mobile devices before and/or during their commute each day, or on demand. Sync can read the text messages aloud when the vehicle is in motion. The traffic information is aggregated by Ford's partner INRIX.
* Directions. Smart phones with Googlemaps are affordable nav system of choice, and Sync takes the idea and makes it safe for drivers. Using a deCarta mapping engine and TeleNav's turn-by turn directions, Sync users can get directions to 14 million businesses using simple voice commands. In response Sync can place a voice call to the business if desired, or send a text message and map to the user's smart phone, or download turn-by-turn directions to the business which Sync reads off as each turn approaches.
* Information. As with fancier subscription based systems like Sirius Travel Link, you can program Sync to stream sports scores, stock quotes, weather conditions, entertainment news and more.

These capabilities arrive in the spring of 2009 and cannot be retrofitted to earlier Sync vehicles, unlike the following two which were recently added:

* 911 Assist. Finds and calls a local 911 call center on a dedicated priority line, giving the responder the vehicle's location (which is more approximate on earlier cars without GPS) and the Sync'd mobile phone number. The system unlocks the doors and ensures that the phone connection remains with the handset as the driver leaves the vehicle. This service remains free for the life of the vehicle.
* Vehicle Health Report. Sync keeps an eye on 12 critical systems onboard the vehicle, records OBD computer codes, etc., and transmits this information back to Ford, which forwards it to the local dealer if maintenance or repair are needed. The info can also help improve future quality/reliability.

A new syncmyride.com web site allows owners to tell Sync which local dealer to use, what news/entertainment info to stream, and when to deliver traffic reports. Frequently visited locations like home, office, etc. can also be programmed for simple voice entry for directions, etc. The system, designed in coordination with Airbiquity, transmits information over voice or data channels, which ever is more efficient, depending on the driver's phone plan. Ford will charge no fees for any of this functionality for three years, but beware of mounting voice and data minutes on your cell phone plan.

And here's the REALLY cool part: Ford will encourage the free market to help develop killer apps like the ones iPhone users have downloaded some 300 million of to date. They'll all be vetted by Ford and available only through the syncmyride.com web site, but possible apps might help connect you to Pandora internet radio or provide text-to-speech access to your Facebook page. Parking-spot finders and clean-bathroom locator functions were also mentioned in the Q&A session. The possibilities are virtually endless. Stay tuned.