Ford's new technology chief ponders the future of driving and mobility

Ken Washington, Ford's new Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering

Global trends appear to be moving towards a future where in many markets, car ownership may look like an expensive, impractical and inconvenient way to get around. So what's the next model of personal transport, and where do the big automakers fit in? Ford's new global VP of Research and Advanced Engineering, Ken Washington, sat down in Melbourne for a "crystal ball" discussion about autonomous cars, on-demand vehicles, car sharing, smart parking, multi-mode transport, and how a car company might learn to cater to a new generation of customers that are far more interested in upgrading their phones than getting their driver's licenses.

Over the last 100 years, auto manufacturers have created a fairly stable relationship with their customers. People buy cars more or less as soon as they can afford them, and enjoy a freedom of mobility that was unavailable to them beforehand. Cars transform our lives and they're a symbol of independence. So many sexual awakenings have happened in, or because of, cars that many owners have developed intense emotional connections with them.

But now, the wind is blowing in a different direction. Where kids of Generation X dreamed of the day they'd get their first car, Millennials are attaching the same feelings to their smartphones. They're connected with their friends and love interests 24/7 – the car is no longer the gateway to social interaction.

"When my son turned 16, he didn't care about getting his driver's license," says Washington. "What he cared about was upgrading his cellphone. That was just unfathomable to me, but to him it was very natural and I think he wasn't alone. The new generation is really thinking about how to use transportation in an on-demand way, they are less tied emotionally to the physical vehicle, and I think it's going to become very important for us to be responsive to the future generations who are thinking about mobility through that different lens."

That's just one of the challenging trends Ford and other auto manufacturers are facing, and Washington identifies three other "megatrends" that are influencing thinking at Ford.

"First, there's urbanization. Today there's almost 30 cities with more than 10 million people. In the next 10 to 15 years there's some studies that tell us that's going to grow to more than 40. So this is a trend that's going to be significant and it means that the infrastructure for transport is going to be more and more crowded, it's going to be more and more difficult to get around. This notion of global gridlock, which was theorized in the past, is going to become more of a reality.

"The second is more people are entering what we would define as the middle class, where you have enough disposable income to buy a car. From 2 billion today, over the next 10 to 15 years we see than number doubling to 4 billion people. You put that together with the first trend.

"Third trend that we're seeing is increasing concerns about the environment, with air quality being near the top of that list. So it's going to become increasingly important for us to deal with the realities of, not only regulation driven requirements on the automotive sector, but the right thing to do for the world, to make air quality good for our future generations."

So – choked city roads, increasing pressures to go easier on the environment, and a new generation coming through that is far less likely to aspire to car ownership in the same way their parents did – what's the path forward for automakers?

Ford doesn't know what the future looks like, but it has some theories and it's starting to test them in the real world. So here's a few things Washington was prepared to speak about.

On self driving cars

While he was unwilling to put a time-frame on when Ford expects to go fully driverless, Washington said, "autonomous vehicles are going to become a reality in the future, we're pretty convinced of that. That puts more and more requirement on the technology for autonomy to be very good and robust. That's why we're taking our time to get that right. So imagine if you get that right and you can take the driver out of the loop. Well that might totally redefine what the interior of the vehicle might look like. Say you have a city taxi service, if it's semi- or fully autonomous, you might design that taxi vehicle to be very different looking to the cars that we drive today. A lot of that will depend on the outcome of some of these experiments that we're doing now."

On the legalities of driverless cars he said, "there are enough technical challenges that that's where we're putting our energy right now. The automotive industry has to come together as a community to work with the policymakers and to address some of the legal issues. So technically, we believe it's absolutely going to be possible for the ability to do full autonomy in certain geofenced areas where the climate is good, you're not obfuscated by snow and rain... that's going to be hard enough. The good news is, we've got many of the building blocks available today. The new Mondeo has many very capable semi-autonomous features on it. Lane keeping, blind spot monitoring, parking assist, these are the building blocks for the future fully autonomous vehicle."

On '"car on demand" subscription services

"That's exactly one of our experiments. And it's one that we're actually having some good success with. We launched that experiment in the city of London. With the density of the population there, it's very challenging to own, park, drive and navigate. So we've launched one of our experiments there we're calling Gold Drive. It's a vehicle on demand, we have both a Focus BEV and a Focus Gas, a fleet of vehicles, and you can subscribe to the vehicles using your smartphone. You access the vehicle, unlock it, get in the car, start it, drive it for however many hours you wanna use it for, drop it off... One of the early learnings we're getting from that experiment is that people love the idea of using a car and then being able to deliver it in a place where they have a guaranteed parking spot. Those are the kinds of learnings that are telling us that if we do something like a car on demand or a car sharing service, make sure you have a place to park it – and also make it easy for people to access it!

"Another experiment we're doing is remote positioning of vehicles. Imagine a future where you've got cars on demand that you order, that you wanna have available the next morning. Well, one of the challenges is having the vehicle in the right place at the right time. Imagine a future where you could actually re-locate that vehicle autonomously but remotely, by remote control. So we're doing an experiment [using go-karts] to enable the remote repositioning of vehicles using on-board cameras and sensors so you can relocate a vehicle from one place to another, safely, but with no on-vehicle human involvement. We're working with Georgia Tech."

On smart parking

Many of Ford's new cars already have the ability to identify an open parking spot as they drive past it. The next step, according to Washington, might be to communicate with other cars on the road when a spot is available.

"It's not science fiction, because the sensors on the vehicle are actually capable enough to tell when you've driven by a parking spot. The vision recognition capabilities of these on-vehicle sensors are actually good enough to tell you if that's a valid parking spot or not. If you overlay that with very detailed maps of certain cities, you could actually imagine how you could inform an information system that this is not only a free parking spot, but a valid one. We're doing an experiment, I think it's in Atlanta in the US, where we're using the onboard sensors of the vehicles to do exactly that. It's a prototype and it's an experiment. We'll run that experiment for this year, and based on what we learn we'll determine whether it's something we wanna roll out as a service.

"We've been thinking about this a lot – the potential for bringing value to our customers is enormous if we can do analytics around the data that's available that comes from the vehicle, and process that in smart ways that give value back to the customer. If a customer wants to have access to that parking information, they might need to give us access to the sensors on their vehicle to be a participant. That's one of the premises we're testing, there are many other models we might use."

On tech giants Apple and Google getting into the automotive space

"It's actually pretty exciting to us that there's so much interest from the tech sector in automobiles and the automotive sector. We think it's a case of rising all boats, so we're pretty excited about that. It's validated the need for us to be in Silicon Valley, and it's a pretty special place. You've got a very high density of tech companies and venture capital investment firms and universities and national laboratories doing very cutting edge research and technology development. By being a part of that community you have access to a very vibrant community of innovative thinkers and technology innovators.

"It's very validating to us that technology behemoths like Apple and Google are paying attention to the automotive industry. With that said, it's also a bit of a wake-up call. We don't have forever to figure out how to take our game to the next level in terms of driving innovation in our business, getting value out of doing connected car and doing something real with autonomous vehicle technology.

"The good news for us is that we've been in Silicon Valley for a number of years. We started our operation there three years ago. This year we opened a much larger facility and announced our commitment to populate that facility with more than 120 people by the end of this year. We're very excited about that. We've got a very creative team there and they're part of a global PD (product development) team.

"It's already giving some benefits to us by enabling to accelerate some of our partnerships with the universities there, and with tech companies that we're doing research with. One of our projects is with Nest, where we've developed a capability for the vehicle to communicate to the Nest API so that when you approach your home, it'll send a signal to your home to turn the temperature up, or to cool it down – sort of a smart car/smart home concept. That wouldn't be possible if we hadn't been there in Silicon Valley and forged that relationship with Nest.

"I'd say we're paying attention to the tech companies' interest in the automotive sector, but I think threatened is too strong a word."

On Ford's data and analytics capabilities

We put it to Washington that Ford's existing fleet of vehicles could make for a big advantage over Google's small fleet of autonomous test vehicles and that every sensor on every Ford on the road could be relaying back a massive amount of data to help jump-start Ford's own autonomous car plans.

"A big part of the big data experiment is to assess the validity of doing something like that. So far the signals are coming back that it's possible, it's very feasible. We are getting more serious about data and analytics. We're just now in the process of assembling our global data and analytics team under the leadership of a new senior leader that we hired earlier this year. We hired our first chief data and analytics officer, and he's assembling this team and their primary responsibility is going to be to develop the architecture for us to harvest and get value out of this massive sensor set of vehicles that are collecting data – and to do it in the right way, with the right privacy principles and the right cybersecurity protocols and the right framework for keeping the data organized and sorted so you can do analytics on it that can then inform how you can actually make the service and the experience better. That's certainly squarely in our plans."

On whether the days of the car enthusiast are coming to an end

"I think you're going to have both models. There are going to be people who continue to have a great relationship with their vehicle. I'll never stop having that kind of feeling toward my vehicle. I love to drive and I think I'm not alone. I think that holds for future generations as well. But in some circumstances it may be too difficult to be mobile in a megacity in an efficient way, and we want to be able to enable our customers to have good options when it's too difficult – and when it may not be the best thing for the environment for everybody to try to fit a vehicle on the road all the time where the infrastructure just doesn't support it."

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