Ford Chairman: Tech Needed To Combat Global Gridlock - InformationWeek

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6/27/2012
10:11 AM
Chris Murphy
Chris Murphy
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Ford Chairman: Tech Needed To Combat Global Gridlock

Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford Jr. thinks traffic congestion could be so limiting to mobility that it becomes a human rights issue.

I don't get that excited about self-driving cars. Sure, I'm all for the idea of a car saving my life by keeping me from rear-ending a semitrailer if I doze off at the wheel. But mostly, I like driving, so self-driving cars aren't the top of my wow list.

Ford Motor executive chairman Bill Ford Jr. Tuesday night got me thinking why self-driving isn't about me and whether I want to drive my own car. The reason we need technology that lets cars connect to each other, and to infrastructure like the road and traffic lights, and is what he calls "global gridlock."

I asked Ford, in a conversation before a press event in downtown Detroit, what data he would like to have that he can't yet get. He turned immediately to how we need to create a connected transportation system--vehicle to vehicle, and vehicle to infrastructure--to deal with the growing gridlock in major urban areas. Vehicles will need the kind of awareness that self-driving cars promise if people are going to use the infrastructure most effectively, whether it's automatically shifting inbound traffic to outbound lanes if there's an accident, or switching traffic lights based on vehicle volumes.

Ford returned to this theme in his public remarks at the event, in a Q&A with journalist David Kirkpatrick. The world has 7 billion people and 1 billion cars, and by mid-century will have 9 billion people and 4 billion cars, Ford said. Traffic may be a headache in Los Angeles or Houston, but in megacities like Mumbai, Shanghai, or Sao Paulo, places approaching 20 million people in the metro area, gridlock is nearing crippling levels that threaten the basic mobility that humans expect to have. "At best, it will be an inconvenience," Ford said. "But it could become a human rights issue. If we can't move people and healthcare and food around urban areas, this is no longer a major inconvenience."

Ford calls it the "mobility" problem, and believes that thinking of solving a mobility problem will inspire new business models (he cited the Zipcar car sharing service). It will also get people working on policies and technologies that will be needed to integrate all modes of transportation--including cars, subways, buses, even bicycle routes--into a network people can see and understand. While cars have an increasing amount of software in them, and Ford has been among the leaders with systems such as its in-dash Sync software, nearly all that computing stays inside the vehicle. "Now we need to connect these billion computers," said Ford.

What technology is lacking to do this kind of smart infrastructure? A lot.

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None of the communication and data management infrastructure is in place today to collect the data that cars can generate, and to distribute it for analyzing in real-time to make traffic routing decisions. Ford doesn't think much of the required tech needs to be "invented," since theoretically the tools exist for this kind of data processing and communication. Even autonomous, self-driving cars are possible today, he noted. "But boy," Ford said, "do we need a lot of development and refinement of the technology."

To find out more about Chris Murphy, please visit his page.

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