To become a better car company, Ford had to become a technology company

Ford is a software company.

Ford is an urbanization and city planning company. Ford is a technology company, an innovation company, a materials-science company, a privacy curator, and a public policy innovator.

Oh yeah, I guess, when it comes down to it, Ford also makes cars, acknowledges Jim Buczkowski. But when we discuss the car of the future and Ford’s efforts to spearhead the dramatic integration of tech that’s changing cars completely, the “car” part seems almost incidental.

“To just say, it’s got four wheels and different sheet metal and maybe a different power plant, that’s too short-sighted,” he told me over a Cobb salad. “We’re really looking at the long-term future.”

The concept of a robot chauffeur: magical yet terrifying at the same time, isn’t it?

Buczkowski, a 36-year veteran of the company, runs Ford’s electronics research group and manages research in advanced electronics; he’s concerned not with the car of tomorrow but the car of next week, next year, next decade even. To get there requires some serious insight not into cars but cities, a topic Ford CEO Mark Fields delved into during a keynote speech at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. Fields detailed his efforts to pinpoint what the city of tomorrow will look like, and the transportation problems it may face — more people, more streets, more pollution, and so on.

“The existing infrastructure for motor vehicles simply cannot sustain the sheer number of vehicles expected to be on the road in the coming years,” he said.

People like Buczkowski are responsible for finding solutions to that dilemma. And often, it’s not building a better car but selling fewer cars. That’s right, part of his job at Ford is to find ways to sell fewer Fords.

“If you go back to what Henry Ford said in the ad he took out in 1925—‘opening the highways for all mankind’? It’s about freedom. People value freedom. And a car, mobility even more generalized, is freedom. If we continue to focus on, ‘how do we deliver that freedom through mobility?’, we can feel confident that we can continue to be successful.”

Self driving cars – or robots

The coming of self-driving vehicles is as unavoidable as a teenage speeding ticket, but how far away is it? Some say five years, some say ten, some say two. What’s astounding is how far we’ve come, Buczkowski notes.

“We’re a lot further along the path than we thought we were five or ten years ago,” he said. That’s due in part to the incredible changes in technology that accelerate at such a giddy pace (the same thing that caused that speeding ticket).

“Sensing technologies, computer technologies, the algorithms, deep learning, all those technologies that go into make the driving robotics — essentially an autonomous vehicle, a robot — are changing so rapidly. The capabilities are growing.”

Creating autonomous vehicles that people will afford is a key part of the company’s strategy, Buczkowski says. Bringing the technology down to the masses is a key plank in Ford’s strategy. Don Butler, Executive Director of New Technologies for Ford, told me a similar thing. After all, Ford didn’t invent the car, either. It just helped popularize it.

We aren’t necessarily aiming to be the first or introduce it or make a big splash,” he noted. “We can see within five years a fully autonomous experience that would be possible … from a Ford perspective, our ambition is to make that broadly applicable, broadly affordable, broadly accessibly.”

Time to update your car

“Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic,” Arthur C. Clarke famously said. Much in our cars today is like that. Take cruise control, just don’t take it for granted. It’s astonishing that you can take your foot off the pedal and keep cruising, when you stop to think about it.

Self-driving vehicles do seem sort of magical and futuristic, but it’s small steps that are readily accessible today that are carrying us rapidly there. Lane-departure warnings. Blind-spot detection. Forward-collision warning with brake assist. All of those things, when you add them together, take you from today’s car to one that’s semi-autonomous to one that shuttles you to work while you sit back and read your paper – just like magic.

Yet it’s terrifying at the same time, isn’t it? The concept of a robot chauffeur?

A long running joke in the computer industry (dating from the days of Windows 95) imagines a world where Microsoft ran your car. It would crash constant and reboot while you drive. Ha ha. But given the technology inside today’s cars, some of the conventions we accept as commonplace in computers are necessities. Chief among them is the software update. Will Ford issue patches someday?

“Absolutely. Absolutely. There’s no doubt about it,” Buczkowski notes. It’s an issue all car makers struggle with. A patch for my 2015 Mazda came on a USB stick that fits an ordinary port in the dash, and can be installed with a few clicks – by my dealer. The car maker only sends a single USB stick to the dealers. What if the consumer does it wrong? Or the patch has a security flaw? Or fixes one thing and breaks something else?

“It’s a sensitive subject, especially around security. You’re never going to create a perfect system.”

Android Auto and Apple’s CarPlay have dominated the news about smart cars. Buczkowski notes that Ford will be launching with these partners “relatively soon,” but the company also offers a solid third option: SmartDeviceLink, an open standard for car connectivity originally developed by Ford, which other car makers have expressed interest in, notably Toyota. All three can co-exist, he said.

“We have to offer Android Auto and CarPlay because customers will want to have a choice.”

Next stop, Palo Alto

Ground zero for the self-driving car of the future seems to be Palo Alto, where Tesla Motors is headquartered, down the road from where Apple is reportedly scouting locations for test facilities. So it only makes sense that Detroit would come to Palo Alto. Ford opened a facility in the tech-city this year, currently home to about a hundred people.

Ford opened the Research and Innovation Center in 2012, when it was just an office. In January the company announced a major expansion of the facility, which focuses on autonomous vehicles and connectivity.

The Research arm of Ford has labs in Dearborn, Mich., Aachen, Germany, and Palo Alto, Calif., as well as a few small satellites, and has strategic partnerships with several universities including University of Michigan, MIT, Stanford, and more.

More today than ever before, the character, the DNA of our vehicles, is being created by software.

These groups work not just on high profile projects like self-driving cars, but also areas such as materials science and wiring – “they’re the unsung heroes,” Buczkowski notes. “Things like fasteners, welding, and stamping, all those kind of things are extremely important to make cars what they are, and the science and the engineering that’s behind that are very critical to the business.”

“More today than ever before, the character, the DNA of our vehicles, is being created by software. That’s why it’s important to recognize that we’re more of a software company today than a hardware company – at least in terms of the impact to consumers.”

To that end the company has tried to build facility that merges Dearborn culture with Palo Alto’s. It has the open plan you’d expect, not to mention the standing desks and barbecue grill, but it also features auto guys working side by side with software engineers. Together, they’re trying to build something new. There are 90 people in the office already, Buczkowski told me. There will be over a hundred by January – building the software that is the DNA of the next generation of cars.

“As technologists we get excited about technology, but what we can never forget is, technology is an enabler of an experience, it’s not technology for technology’s sake. What people will fall in love with is an experience. What people decide they can’t live without is an experience.”

“Our job is to find that technology that enables that experience.”

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