Technology and Innovation Drives Ford Smart Mobility
Ford recently marked the one-year anniversary of the opening of its newly expanded California R&D lab and ticked off its accomplishments as leader in what CEO Mark Fields called Ford’s “one
foot in today, one foot in tomorrow” strategy:
- Driving innovation (more about that later).
- Becoming a part of Silicon Valley’s culture.
- Becoming one of the largest automotive presences in the Valley.
Fields said the Palo Alto (CA) office was a key component in Ford’s move into what he terms Ford Smart Mobility, which encompasses:
- Autonomous vehicles,
- Connected vehicles and
- Big data.
Self-Driving Cars and Miniature Data Gatherers
To demonstrate Ford’s progress Fields affixed a new license plate to its recently licensed autonomous car (a Fusion). What was not discussed at the media event were talks reported on later between Ford and Google that could lead to a large-scale collaboration on autonomous vehicles. Ford opened the lab to media with demonstrations of some of the technologies its folks are working on. Some of the innovations come out of collaborations with 40 local startups (out of 200 they’ve talked with). Fields noted that Ford has filed 100 invention disclosures and 51 patents in the past year. Researchers are working on sophisticated, learning software programs that can simulate automated car driving situations without risking either expensive hardware or people’s lives.
One of the examples often cited is Ford’s collaboration with its neighbor, Nest, a Google (now Alphabet) company. Ford and Nest engineers worked together to develop software embedded in Ford’s infotainment system that turns down the home thermostat when you leave the garage and then resets the home temperature to match the one in your car when you head for home.
Another example was found in the back room of Ford’s Silicon Valley lab. There, one researcher had his vintage Honda motorcycle and a basic bicycle, the testbed for a project. They were to be used as part of an experiment in data collection Ford is pursuing with Riders for Health. The African non-profit group delivers health care and medicines in rural areas. Ford’s Silicon Valley engineers used off-the-shelf components to design and then shrink a durable data collection computer that they hope will allow the organization and others to map rural roads and make their life-saving work more efficient.
Ford Smart Mobility Does Fear Failure
That project is part of Ford’s Ford Smart Mobility program, an effort announced a year ago that is designed to explore the company’s move beyond its core car and truck-making business. Two
aspects of this program set it apart from a typical auto company program. First, it encompassed 25 projects spanning the globe, many only peripherally connected to the auto business. Second, at the outset Ford said it expected that many of the projects might fail. The company was saying that it expected to learn things to add to its future business whether these projects succeeded or not.
In Ford’s growing lab the gap is evident between tech early adopters, who can’t wait for the Google car to arrive, and researchers working on autonomous technology, who are much more sobering about the debut of said technology. That gap is driving more than 100 Ford engineers and their collaborators throughout the Valley to explore new technologies and push the boundries of how we envision mobility. They’re not the only ones barreling down this road, but their growth and progress during the past year shows the intensity that is being brought to bear on what may be the defining issues for the automobile in the coming years.
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