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4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech

InformationWeek 500 Conference preview: Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas will discuss how the automaker is making software an ever more important part of the vehicle.

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.

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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.

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User Rank: Author
8/6/2012 | 3:25:52 PM
re: 4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech
I think the support piece is the most interesting element of this software emphasis -- that the carmakers are promising to support the vehicle in a way they never have. Yes, they've provided replacement parts and repairs. But now, in software, Ford is not just saying it'll keep the car operating as it was when sold, it's promising to make that software better over the life of the car. That's entirely new thinking.
User Rank: Apprentice
7/31/2012 | 3:32:52 AM
re: 4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech
Advanced convergent technology progression will continue to inspire, offering innovative manufactures a steady stream of "first to market" products and services.

Seamless consistent "quality" integration of advanced convergent systems, and services will certainly improve the brand loyalty performance metric.

I'm passionate about these products and services, moreover, I enjoy envisioning future iterations of products and services.

I'd like to share these with you, but there are so many, it would take, well, the rest of my career, and I'd prefer that Ford Motor Co. benefit from my skills/experience value proposition.

I'm between assignments, actively seeking my next PMO/Program Management Opportunity!

I'm hopeful, and optimistic, taking calls from recruiters representing a variety of industries.

And yet, I remain prayerful God will, somehow, someday soon, move Mr. Mulally to read this, and call.

An Able/Available PMP - Washington Township, MI.

User Rank: Apprentice
7/30/2012 | 5:31:39 PM
re: 4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech
While obsolescence is also a concern of mine, I see a whole new industry springing up here -- 3rd party software for updating/improving the OEM version of autoware. O'Reillys will have to have a geek on staff at every store!

Now if my city's traffic department could just upgrade that stupid traffic light down the street so it doesn't turn red every time I approach, even if there is no cross traffic!
User Rank: Apprentice
7/30/2012 | 12:20:39 PM
re: 4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech
I don't object to advancing technology in vehicle application; but what is it first? Transporation from A to B.
That should still be the primary focus of all the OEM's to make cost of ownership and reliable powertrain and chassis a success before the creature comforts and bling items are added. As long as the consumer remains focused on buying and giving feedback about the DVD's, telecommunication, etc.; than OEM vehicle manufacturers will continue to make reliability and cost of repairs a secondary issue. Do we really want $6000 transmission repair bills, because development is focused on cars that commumnicate?
The choice is ours. Influence JD Power and other quality organizations. It is a major source of info to maanagement.
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
7/28/2012 | 9:20:23 PM
re: 4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech
I just have to wonder if auto manufacturers like Ford are willing to support these products in the same way that they have to support the other major components of a vehicle. I could be wrong, but I believe that manufacturers have to be able to provide replacement parts for a vehicle up to 7 years after the last of a model rolls off of the production line - so a brand new 2012 that rolls off the production line on 6/30/2012 has to be supported until 6/30/2019. That's an eternity when it comes to technology products.

Also, how secure are these systems? How would the average driver know if their vehicle's computer has been hacked? What happens when your onboard computer system decides that it wants to shut the car down or, even worse, show that you have a full tank when you're on empty? The systems built in to these vehicles have to be inherently trusted and trustable - who's going to guarantee that?

As far as people wanting technology in their vehicle - from my personal experience, yes I do. When I get around to building my 1970 Imperial, I fully plan to implement a system (using a tablet or another standard, commodity system most likely) that will give its occupants an experience that crosses somewhere between HAL and KITT (hopefully more KITT than HAL :) ).

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
User Rank: Apprentice
7/27/2012 | 8:28:07 PM
re: 4 Ways Ford Is Exploring Next-Gen Car Tech
I believe there are issues with the expansion of technology use in vehicles. The introduction of technology in any facet of life appeals to the younger generations. That appeal is catering to younger and younger people as time goes by. It is evident in most telecommunications equipment on the market. Therein lies one of the issues. Today's phone is tomorrow's piece of scrap. So it goes with technology. Vehicles with built-in obsolescence first arrived on the scene in the '60's. That 'best before date' is getting shorter and shorter with each new piece of technology added to bring down the LCD level of today's drivers.
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