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.
Ford is thinking about how to combine all of those sensors into "traffic jam assist" software, so cars maintain a certain distance from one another, moving along slowly but at least continuing to move.

The next, dramatic leap would be if cars actively share information. If cars tell a traffic light they're coming, that light could in theory consider traffic in all directions and optimize how long to stay green. Car-to-car info sharing could alert cars miles behind that those ahead have been in an accident or have come to a screeching halt, warning people to prepare to slow down.

Too far out? In August, 2,800 cars in Ann Arbor, Mich., will be equipped with this kind of car-to-car data sharing, as part of the U.S. Department of Transportation's largest real-world test of this concept.

Designing Car Models Digitally

Ford in the past couple of years has pushed the use of virtual reality to help its people design vehicles. A demo of its Immersive Virtual Environment used a car seat, steering wheel, and blank dashboard. Wearing virtual reality glasses and gloves with sensors, a designer sits in the seat and has the vehicle's 3-D design imposed around him or her, experiencing what a proposed interior is like. Are the knobs in an awkward place? Blind spots?

Or the designer can take the view of assembly line workers. Is a bolt they need to tighten too hard to reach? "We can look at what a design change would mean for manufacturing," says Elizabeth Baron, who runs Ford's Immersive Virtual Environment.

Creating In-Car Apps

Truly becoming a software company is Ford's biggest leap. For its entire history, once the company had built a vehicle, it was done enhancing it. Want the latest features? Buy a new car.

Software's different. Ford drew some harsh reviews of its original MyFord Touch touchscreen, but its update generally was seen as solving the usability problems. Software goes out of style fast, and Ford intends to provide updates regularly for features or ease of use. "Increasingly, more of the capability of a vehicle is software," says Ford CIO Nick Smither.

And that leads to Ford's next software challenge: How best to build an app ecosystem around Sync. Its AppLink software lets drivers control select third-party smartphone apps like Pandora using Sync's voice controls. But advanced apps will want to draw on more of the vehicle's data--gas in the tank, speed, engine performance, direction. Ford is exploring how best to share that kind of data in read-only formats, and with whom, so outside developers can innovate without hurting vehicle performance or safety. Ford opened a Silicon Valley center to plug into software development trends and tap the area's entrepreneurs.

How much technology do people want in their cars? How often do they want to upgrade? Can they use technology safely while driving? What's the role of third-party developers? Ford is advancing on all of these fronts, and many of these ideas are the subject of pilot tests and limited deployments. These are near-term possibilities, not "someday-we'll-have-flying-cars" ideas. As Greenberg says about the research into health-monitoring systems, "It's science, but it's not science fiction."

Learn more and ask questions at the InformationWeek Week 500 conference, Sept. 9 to 11.