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7/26/2012
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Chris Murphy
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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.



When Ford upgraded this year the Sync software that's inside more than 300,000 vehicles, the company truly became a software company, making good on a promise to continually improve its in-vehicle software well after the car or truck is sold.

The move shows Ford putting more IT in front of the customer and making tech a bigger part of its products. It's why we asked Ford CTO Paul Mascarenas to speak on Sept. 11 at the InformationWeek 500 conference in Dana Point, Calif., where I'll interview him on the role of customer-facing tech at Ford. (Register to attend and ask your own questions.)

Ford is thinking beyond Sync about more--and more radical--next-gen car technology. What if your car could sense when you're white-knuckling it through a snowstorm, and automatically limit distractions and help you drive better? What if your pickup interacted with the cars around it, and even with the roads and stoplights, to help traffic move safer and faster? What if car designers could test ideas using virtual reality glasses, so they could know without making a physical prototype if making a back window smaller limits visibility too much?

To give you a sense of what Ford's doing, and why we invited Mascarenas to speak at the conference, here are just a few ways it's exploring next-gen car tech, which I saw during a visit to Ford's Dearborn, Mich., headquarters earlier this summer:

Monitoring Your Health

Ford's testing ways to monitor the driver's physical state. It can monitor breathing with sensors tracking the rise and fall of the seat belt. Sensors on the steering wheel can take a pulse, or sense sweaty palms.

Ford isn't looking to start diagnosing or addressing illnesses. If cars have any role there, like glucose monitoring for diabetics, it'll happen through partnerships with medical companies, like Ford has with device maker Medtronic. But if in-car technology can assess the driver's physical state and also what's going around the vehicle--traffic using front and blind spot detectors, road surface using traction control sensors--it could calculate a "workload estimator" that predicts the driver's stress level.

Using that information, the car might take actions, like show the road lines on the windshield using augmented reality, or cut distractions by automatically putting Sync in "Do Not Disturb" mode so it won't read incoming texts. It won't, however, try to calm the driver, like playing a soothing Miles Davis tune if the driver is determined to be stressed. It's focused on helping the driver keep control. "We don't want to play nice mood music as you're skidding around," says Jeff Greenberg, senior technical leader for Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.

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Connecting Cars To Infrastructure

Ford chairman Bill Ford thinks "global gridlock" is a threat to the automobile's future. It comes down to numbers: The world has 1 billion cars today; it could have 4 billion by 2050. Already, megacities such as Shanghai and Mumbai are choked by auto traffic.

Ford's answer is that cars will need to share data with infrastructure (such as roads, bridges, and streetlights) and one another to efficiently keep traffic moving. It's the self-driving car idea, only the goal is to keep traffic moving efficiently, not to let the driver read at the wheel.

Elements of the technology needed to do this exist today. Blind spot detectors, forward collision warning systems, and adaptive cruise control are reacting to data from beyond the car. The redesigned Fusion sedan, debuting this fall, will monitor white lines along the road and try to prevent the driving from heading off the road--vibrating the wheel and then steering the driver back if he continues to cross the lines (without turn signal). That feature is on some Explorers now.

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.

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