Ford Puts Pedal To Metal On In-Car Electronics - InformationWeek
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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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User Rank: Apprentice
11/14/2012 | 10:24:16 PM
re: Ford Puts Pedal To Metal On In-Car Electronics
First, all of the gadgetry, is just that...more expensive do-dads to distract the to voice control, in 1983 there was already a car which had full voice control over all operating aspects of the car and driver functions. Radio, wipers, lights, doors and locks, inebriation protection, hood and trunk controls, interior lighting, air-conditioning and heating systems, as well as motor and battery condition indicators, inclusive of all computer electronics. There is nothing new here, in fact, it's 30 years behind time. Amectran Corporation had these innovations in 1982. as well as being the "World's First Real Production Ready Electric Automobile" which could travel 100 miles on a charge with lead acid batteries, as tested by the U.S. Department of Transportation and recommended to the U.S. Senate by the Secretary of Transportation. The U.S. Auto industry has done a poor job of maintaining production integrity, as indicated by the number of foreign auto firms who have replaced America as the leader in quality automobiles. At one time the U.S. provided 85 out of every 100 cars built on, what, 27?l Certainly we could not have expected to maintain that lofty level, but we are down to 2 American automobile companies, Ford and GM. Gone are Chrysler, American Motors, Kaiser-Frazer, Checker, White and others whose products are now produced in foreign countries...Amectran, like Tucker, would have provided innovative technology in their respective years which would have advanced the automobile industry as the vacuum tube industry was advanced by the transistor...the transistor was ignored and therefore the largest consumer market in the world, the electronic consumer market went to Japan and the Far East...the electric automobile and its gadgets followed suit - today, all this is becoming a big deal, when in fact, its old technology finally being used and advanced...
User Rank: Apprentice
9/17/2012 | 6:05:46 AM
re: Ford Puts Pedal To Metal On In-Car Electronics
And people wonder why I prefer a bicycle.....
User Rank: Apprentice
9/13/2012 | 12:52:47 PM
re: Ford Puts Pedal To Metal On In-Car Electronics
Yes,the new Ford can be considered a Software Company - in fact my car just had the Service Pack 1 upgrade.

The after service survey needs to match the fact the dealer cannot do it all any more. The survey goes through the usual "Dealer Satisfaction" questions - it forgets one thing though....

If the Software Upgrade that Ford supplies them for my car does not work - it is not a "dealer" problem - it is a Ford problem
Andrew Hornback
Andrew Hornback,
User Rank: Apprentice
9/13/2012 | 2:40:23 AM
re: Ford Puts Pedal To Metal On In-Car Electronics
The more that I hear about all of this electronic wizardry in our vehicles and more coming with every model year... the more I wish I still had my old Plymouth convertible.

Working with technology on a daily (and nightly) basis, there are times that I want to just disconnect and get away from all things tech. Back when the only things you needed for a good time were sunshine, a good pair of sunglasses, a tank of gas and an open road.

Sure, I love having satellite radio, navigation and all of the power toys one could ever imagine in my "modern" car... but there's just something about the wind through your hair and the burble of a classic American V8 when you really hang your right foot in the throttle that I doubt that technology will ever be able to completely capture.

Going back to the technical side, I still have to wonder what these companies are doing to keep this technology safe and secure. What's to keep a hacker from exploiting the Bluetooth in your vehicle and uploading a little code that turns your vehicle's onboard systems into a tracking device? Oh, wait, don't auto insurance companies already do that?

Andrew Hornback
InformationWeek Contributor
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