Big data might have been the buzzword of 2014, but more and more brands are thinking about smart data. At CES 2015, Ford revealed its Smart Mobility project, an initiative comprising 25 separate experiments which aim to leverage data to “address growing or increasing transportation challenges.”
Ford CEO Mark Fields began his keynote by discussing the extreme congestion challenges faced by “mega cities” such as Mumbai. With one of the highest population densities in the world, Mumbai’s infrastructure has struggled to keep up with its rapid growth, leading to gridlock on a massive scale. The same is true in other areas of sprawling urbanisation, such as Los Angeles. “Our roadmap has to include not only smarter cars but smarter roads and smarter cities,” says Fields.
Mass urbanisation is just one of four key trends that Smart Mobility intends to examine. The others are global middle class growth (primarily in Asia), a millennial-driven shift in consumer attitudes towards smartphones and connected living, and the serious social issue of air quality.
This approach to innovation harks all the way back to the company’s origins; Henry Ford wanted to use his company and its products not just to help customers get from point A to point B, but to connect people, to forge a better world. And in 2015, “better” means “smarter”. With the increasingly prolific use of sensors and the digitisation of everyday objects, it won’t be long before everything is predictive. With that in mind, Ford has announced driverless cars as a distinct near-future possibility.
“We’re already manufacturing and selling semi-autonomous vehicles that use software and sensors to steer into both parallel and perpendicular parking spaces, adjust speed based on traffic flow or apply the brakes in an emergency,” says Chief Technology Officer Raj Nair. “There will be a Ford autonomous vehicle in the future, and we take putting one on the road very seriously.”
Testing is currently underway on a model which maps its surroundings using LiDAR sensors, and predicts movement of pedestrians and other vehicles using a series of complex algorithms. That is not to say that Ford will be the first company to launch a fully automated car; safety is of the utmost importance, and Fields has no interest in rushing to the finish line with a product before have all of its implications have been fully explored. For example, the emotional and psychological impacts of a self-driving car on users have yet to be fully analysed, not to mention physical maladies such as motion sickness.
“Our priority is not in making marketing claims or being in a race for the first autonomous car on the road,” says Fields. “Our priority is in making the first Ford autonomous vehicle accessible to the masses and truly enhancing customers’ lives.”
Ford will be piloting much of its new technology on the streets of London, where the latest laws relating to autonomous vehicles are already in place. These trials will include car sharing and swapping services, a vast database to help people find available parking spaces, and ‘Data Driven Insurance’, which offers users the ability to check the location and overall health of their car via a telematics app.
Data ownership was a hotly discussed topic all day at CES, and Fields’ keynote was no different. He explained that Ford cars generate, on average, 25 GB of data per hour. He then went on to assert that while consumers deserve to retain full control of this data, he envisions Ford as a kind of “steward” in which customers can place their trust. One thing’s for sure; when you’re buying a car that drives itself, trust in the manufacturer could not be more important.