Ford's Vision of the Future: Autonomy, Ride Sharing and Less Congestion

By James O Malley on at

Each year at Mobile World Congress, the biggest companies in the world gather to show off whatever hi-tech ideas they’ve been working on. This year was no different: Samsung had some shiny new tablets, Intel had some chips that were ready for 5G and… well… you’d expect Ford to have a car, right? But this year the Ford stand was severely lacking in the auto department - something that the company liked to repeatedly point out.

The reason is simple: Ford is trying to reposition itself from being just an old-fashioned car company. Lumps of metal with wheels conjure images of rusting Detroit - not sleek Silicon Valley. So this year, it was making a big noise about how it is now a “mobility” company - and isn’t just interested in making cars.

So is, as Ford now a tech company that makes cars, rather than just a car company? “We’ve always been heavily technology oriented. Vehicles are very technically sophisticated things. What’s relatively new for us is our aggressive pursuit of new emerging opportunities in mobility and autonomy and connectivity”, explains Dr Ken Washington, Ford’s Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering.

The Connected Vision

I asked him to paint a picture of how he sees Ford in the future. “The vision is that we’re looking through the lens of what’s happening in the world. People are moving increasingly to urban environments. By some projections 70% of the world’s population will be living in urban environments in, I think, the next ten years, [...] and because of that, they’re only going to get more congested and we’ll see a combination of that trend and a trend to move more toward electrification because of air quality concerns and also a trend to move from car ownership to car ownership and sharing of use.”

“So all of those three together are telling us that we need to pursue how to enable these new ways to move, how to pursue bringing technologies to cities as a partner with those cities to offer options for mobility for people who live in those cities and then, last but not least, a fairly aggressive pursuit of electrification in our vehicle line-up.”

In the future, car parks will have really confusing lines painted on them.

In other words, he’s interested in electrification and autonomy. He points to a $4.5bn investment between now and 2020 in bringing 13 new electric cars to market (6 of which have already been announced). But it isn’t just electric: it sounds as though Ford is preparing to bet on the future being autonomous, along with connected vehicles and ride sharing. This is evident by its acquisition of San Francisco start-up Chariot (think UberPool but with minibuses, and aimed at commuters), which it is help scale and launch in other cities across the US.

Don Butler, Ford’s executive director of Connected Vehicles and Services, elaborated on the company's plans for connected cars. The company used MWC as an excuse to announce a new partnership with Vodafone, which will enable it to put 4G modems in new cars.

“You’ll be able to remotely monitor the vehicle, look at things like your fuel status, tire pressure, odometer, and in regions where it’s legally permissible, actually remotely starting your vehicle, to precondition it”, he explains. “In a hot climate like Arizona in the States then you could precondition the vehicle to cool it down in the summer. Or if you’re in Michigan in the winter to heat the vehicle up.”

He also points to how the modem could improve in-car connectivity for our devices too. With the car acting as a hotspot, not only could it provide in-journey connectivity for, say, kids’ tablets, but because it will use the much more powerful 4G antenna built into the car rather than the weedy one in user’s device, it will mean better connectivity in more remote areas. Butler also sees the future in how Ford cars will now be able to talk to other Cloud applications like Amazon’s Alexa platform - meaning that the car becomes another node that can be plugged into a wide array of other platforms and services.

Uber, But For Cars

Perhaps the most profound change to mobility in recent years has been the rise of taxi apps like Uber - which have revolutionised transport in cities. It has even led many to speculate that with autonomy on the horizon, and the simple ease of hailing a temporary ride, that the idea of buying a car might become a thing of the past. Does Ken Washington agree?

“We believe that there’ll be plenty of need for people that own and use vehicles on, I would say, the traditional model. Not everyone lives and works in an urban environment and even those who do they still may want to own a vehicle for pleasure purposes, for vacations or for those unique times when they just really want to have the flexibility and the agility of owning their own vehicle”, he says, “But increasingly we think people, particularly those living and working in and around large, urban environments are going to want to have options where it does not require them to either own or use their personally owned vehicle. So, plenty of room for both models.”

Ford's "City of Tomorrow" will include lots of shapes, apparently.

Despite his acceptance of this new model and Ford’s positioning around “mobility”, I couldn’t quite get him to say what I was hoping: That he thinks cities should build more cycling infrastructure - something that would make a strong intervention in London’s ongoing war between motorists (boo) and cyclists (hooray!), when coming from a Ford executive. Sadly then. He refused to take my bait.

“We don’t take sides”, he laughs, “We come to cities with an understanding of ways to ease their pain points. And one of the most consistent pain points we hear cities tell us is, “Help us ease congestion”. Which is why one of our first moves to partner with cities is to build out our capability of bringing vans to cities”.

This is again a reference to the Chariot service - the thinking being that one van full of commuters takes a number of cars off the road. Though he does say the company are “looking at enabling bike sharing programmes” - and is putting its money where its mouth and is sponsoring 7,000 hire bikes in San Francisco.

“We can imagine how the combination of those two together could really help ease congestion in a city like San Francisco. Using that as a template, we’ll approach other cities and explore partnering with them to help them ease their problems as well”, he says.

What appears clear is that it is still relatively early days for any focus on mobility: Ford has yet to decide exactly what it’s business model will be in this space - such as whether it will just be providing the cars to services like Uber, or whether it will aiming to provide the service too, and take on Uber as a competitor. But the company is aiming to have an autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021.

Long Term Support

Whether or not the company meets this deadline, the imminent arrival of autonomous vehicles did make me curious: What about long term support? One big difference between the tech industry and the car industry is product life cycles: We replace our phones every year or two, but if we buy a car, we expect it to last maybe a decade or even longer. As cars become connected devices and rely on network technology for use, will the cars in our drive ways become lumps of metal if Ford turn off the servers?

“You can make things upgradeable and updatable to a point and it’s certainly our intention to do that but even [with] Apple, I mean you’re not going to be able to get iOS 10 on an iPhone 3, it’s not going to work, right? So at some point you do reach the limits of obsolescence”, says Butler.

He goes on to point to Ford’s membership of the SmartDeviceLink consortium - which also counts the likes of Toyota, Subaru, and Suzuki as members. The idea is that by creating common standards for app/car integration, app support can be guaranteed for much longer.

Washington, however, isn’t so worried, because in his view the car market will be structured differently: Because autonomous vehicles will be entering the market in a fleet setting as part of a ride-sharing service, it means that cars will be used more intensively - meaning cars won’t be kept as round as long. “Your personal vehicle today, you may keep it seven to ten years but in any given year you’re using it 5% of the time at best. These ride-service vehicles, they’ll be utilised a much higher percentage, like 90% of the time, so they’ll be refreshed more frequently, more like two to three years duty cycle after being used like 90 – 95% of the time.”

Will Trump Track Your Car?

So the future is autonomous, cloud connected vehicles. But could this have privacy implications? Given that we know that governments already have an insatiable appetite for our data (thanks, Edward Snowden) - surely it isn’t inconceivable that governments will also want to track our cars? And let’s face it - it would be a stunning surprise if the Trump administration turned out to be defenders of civil liberties. So what would Ford do if Trump asked for data from its vehicles?

“So the first principle is, from our standpoint, that vehicle data is really the customer’s data. And we won’t do anything without the informed consent of our customers. In fact as part of subscribing to the service and opting in, on the SYNC screen you’ll see this is the type of data that we use in terms of delivering this service, this is how we will use the data, and then we will make sure that we get your informed consent for that”, Butler explains. Though I can’t help but wonder how many people will continue to blindly press “accept” at the end of a long tract of terms and conditions.

“Because we view ourselves as trusted stewards of that data, on your behalf. And we will go to whatever extent possible to protect your privacy and to protect that as your data. And honestly that really is one of the hallmarks of our brand, which is trust, right? We can’t envision and we can’t deliver on this bright future if you don’t trust us, and so we want to give you control and make sure that you are always informed and consenting all along the way.”

This doesn’t mean that Ford will be at the forefront of any future privacy battles though. Washington took a more equivocal tone:

“Our position is we will comply with all federal laws and that our position is also that we will always ask our customers for permission to have access to their data. We will not share that with third parties without their consent and without their knowledge”, he hedges. “And if those two principles of our company come into conflict then we’ll have to have a conversation at the executive level and the policy level.”

Fight For Survival

To look back at recent technological progress is to look at a graveyard of “legacy” businesses that failed to adapt. Nokia and Blackberry, which only a few years ago dominated mobile, are now essentially irrelevant. Amazon has laid waste to almost the entire high street, and Uber is doing the same to the hackney carriage. Clearly Ford has at least realised that, conceivably, it could be next - and with a refocused business it is clearly hoping that when the age of autonomy finally arrives, there’s still a place for the Ford Motor Company.

Full Disclosure: Ford provided Giz UK’s travel and accommodation at Mobile World Congress.

Written over 4G at MWC thanks to Vodafone.