Ford Puts Pedal To Metal On In-Car Electronics

Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas tells InformationWeek 500 audience how the car of the future will be as much a software product as assembled hardware.
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We typically think of cars as hard goods, like refrigerators and stoves, but the car of the future will be made up of millions of lines of software, as well as a chassis, engine, and gracefully sculpted body, said Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas at the InformationWeek 500 Conference in Dana Point, Calif.

Mascarenas showed off a video of the Ford Evos, a concept car with gull-wing doors, both front and back. "We would like to offer a very personalized driving experience ... We think the vehicle should get to know you, as opposed to you needing to get to know the vehicle," he said at the conference Tuesday.

That might one day include a seat belt that measures your breathing rate or a steering wheel that takes your temperature. But as of today, it is more likely to include Ford's Sync service, which can send a driver turn-by-turn navigation instructions, a vehicle health report, or the results of a search for a nearby gas station. It is also a general-purpose entertainment and information system.

Sync can share information through a voice-activated user interface, MyFord Touch, or display it on an eight-inch, color touchscreen in the dashboard, provided the car is no longer in motion. "We supported the ban on texting and the use of handheld phones while driving," he noted. If you're driving, you can't interact with the Sync service except through voice commands.

[ Want to learn more about how Ford is working to become a software company? See Ford Navigates Rough Road Of Software Development. ]

Sync is based on Microsoft Windows and was launched four years ago. It can be updated with the latest software patches by executing a download to a memory stick device, then plugging it into the car's USB port. It represents a maturing digital service embedded in the car's dashboard, with a resistive touchscreen--the kind you need to press with a finger until the screen itself flexes slightly. (Samsung's Galaxy, Apple's iPhones, and other smartphones use capacitive resistance screens that can be touched lightly for a response.) Ford's 18-month exclusive agreement with Microsoft is over, and other car manufacturers are beginning to match Ford with their own Windows Automotive-based, digital services.

Sync can work with an application on a driver's smartphone, including iPhone and several Android phone models. One day, a health information application on the phone may collect the driver's temperature and breathing rate information from the car's sensors, Mascarenas predicted.

In addition to the MyFord Touch interface, Sync since 2010 has been available with AppLink, which allows a user to connect the car's audio system to Pandora Internet radio service or Stitcher Smart Radio. You can find out more about such infotainment services at this May 2012 review in PC Magazine.

Mascarenas said the safety of the car's occupants and the security of its software systems remain top concerns at Ford. It has no intent of ever having customers complain that hackers pulled alongside them on the turnpike and took over the car's steering mechanism, derailing them into a ditch.

"Our core priority remains a high-quality vehicle and safe vehicle," he said. Services such as content and entertainment feeds would be kept in a partition separate from basic systems, such as steering, braking, and power train operation.

Ford is trying to attract young engineering talent coming out of such schools as Stanford, and to do that, it's opened a Silicon Valley office where it will maintain a small engineering staff, working on ideas similar to AppLink and MyFord Touch. It's a reflection of how much Ford is bent on becoming a software as well as hardware company. Having given young engineers a taste of automobiles' digital potential, it might then try to entice them closer to Detroit. But regardless, it would have exposed recent graduates to the potential of a career in automotive software engineering.

A high priority is to keep the car's software easy for its driver and occupants to use. "The primary task of the driver is to focus on driving," not running the car's electronics, Mascarenas said.

A questioner in the audience asked why Ford couldn't provide its customers with more information, given a vehicle's potential for collecting data, when the check engine light comes on. He said the light was an indicator of potentially serious trouble, but without more details, it also became something that might be ignored.

Mascarenas answered that the car's diagnostic system was already responding beyond "check engine" level of information, such as prompting the driver to go get an oil change when it's overdue. But more detailed feedback to accompany various warning lights is still to come, he said.

There's a generation gap among car buyers, with younger drivers invoking the potential of Sync and AppLinks, while older drivers sometimes spurn all the new bells and whistles. But Ford is shooting for the middle ground, occupied by many more drivers than those found at the fringes, with its improving electrical systems.

And cars in the near future will have, if not driverless driving, as in the Google experimental car, then at least stay-in-your lane assistance, backup camera views, and adaptive cruise control that lets the car proceed on automatic pilot through a variety of traffic conditions. "The next 10 years will see these features become more widely available," he predicted. And, he might have added, will see Ford become more of a software company.

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