When Ford upgraded this year the Sync software that's inside more than 300,000 vehicles, the company truly became a software company, making good on a promise to continually improve its in-vehicle software well after the car or truck is sold.
The move shows Ford putting more IT in front of the customer and making tech a bigger part of its products. It's why we asked Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas to speak on Sept. 11 at the InformationWeek 500 conference in Dana Point, Calif., where I'll interview him on the role of customer-facing tech at Ford. (Register to attend and ask your own questions.)
Ford is thinking beyond Sync about more--and more radical--next-gen car technology. What if your car could sense when you're white-knuckling it through a snowstorm, and automatically limit distractions and help you drive better? What if your pickup interacted with the cars around it, and even with the roads and stoplights, to help traffic move safer and faster? What if car designers could test ideas using virtual reality glasses, so they could know without making a physical prototype if making a back window smaller limits visibility too much?
To give you a sense of what Ford's doing, and why we invited Mascarenas to speak at the conference, here are just a few ways it's exploring next-gen car tech, which I saw during a visit to Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters earlier this summer:
Monitoring Your Health
Ford's testing ways to monitor the driver's physical state. It can monitor breathing with sensors tracking the rise and fall of the seat belt. Sensors on the steering wheel can take a pulse, or sense sweaty palms.
Ford isn't looking to start diagnosing or addressing illnesses. If cars have any role there, like glucose monitoring for diabetics, it'll happen through partnerships with medical companies, like Ford has with device maker Medtronic. But if in-car technology can assess the driver's physical state and also what's going around the vehicle--traffic using front and blind spot detectors, road surface using traction control sensors--it could calculate a "workload estimator" that predicts the driver's stress level.
Using that information, the car might take actions, like show the road lines on the windshield using augmented reality, or cut distractions by automatically putting Sync in "Do Not Disturb" mode so it won't read incoming texts. It won't, however, try to calm the driver, like playing a soothing Miles Davis tune if the driver is determined to be stressed. It's focused on helping the driver keep control. "We don't want to play nice mood music as you're skidding around," says Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.
Connecting Cars To Infrastructure
Ford chairman Bill Ford thinks "global gridlock" is a threat to the automobile's future. It comes down to numbers: The world has 1 billion cars today; it could have 4 billion by 2050. Already, megacities such as Shanghai and Mumbai are choked by auto traffic.
Ford's answer is that cars will need to share data with infrastructure (such as roads, bridges, and streetlights) and one another to efficiently keep traffic moving. It's the self-driving car idea, only the goal is to keep traffic moving efficiently, not to let the driver read at the wheel.
Elements of the technology needed to do this exist today. Blind spot detectors, forward collision warning systems, and adaptive cruise control are reacting to data from beyond the car. The redesigned Fusion sedan, debuting this fall, will monitor white lines along the road and try to prevent the driving from heading off the road--vibrating the wheel and then steering the driver back if he continues to cross the lines (without turn signal). That feature is on some Explorers now.