Investigating tomorrow’s world in motoring at Ford’s tech-tastic initiative

Ford’s annual Trends Conference in Detroit gives a sneak peak at the future of car-making and its technology.

Advanced clay modelling was one of the techniques used by Ford to develop its Evos hybrid concept car. Courtesy Ford
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Sometimes I sit in a new car, look at a feature and wonder how did they know, five to seven years ago, that this technology would be available today? I mean, how did car designers know to include large touch-screen fascias with FireWire and Lightning-cable connectivity, iPad-like consoles, entertainment units that stream music through systems such as Spotify, or even Bluetooth, back in 2007?

It’s because, like everything else, car companies spend copious amounts of resources and money on predicting the future and discovering trends, and they do this by spending time with their counterparts in non-auto businesses like Google, Apple and Intel. Collectively, it’s a genius-brains trust that shares information behind closed doors, so that a product such as a car that has a seven-year lead time is not left hopelessly outdated by a product like an iPad that has a 12-week development cycle.

Predicting this at Ford is the job of Sheryl Connelly, who carries the lofty title of global trends and futuring expert. She opened Ford’s recent annual Trends Conference at its headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, by using the analogy of blue jeans.

“Trends define social, technological, economic and environmental aspects,” says Connelly, “but take a look at blue jeans. They’ve been around for 150 years, and if you wore them back then you’d be a labourer, working class, and yet a century later they are high society, which you can wear to work or ­dinner.

“We created the trends department a decade ago, in a company that’s more than 100 years old, to study the future, and when we started, we looked at a bunch of different disciplines and created a global-trend database. Back then, the work we did was never shared with the outside world. We thought it was critical to our strategic positioning, but in recent times we started to tap into the expertise of the subject matter in politics, science, economics, technology and the environment, and we now publish these trends in preparation for the next phase – which is to take this conversation deeper, which is what the Trends Conference is about.”

Sitting in on the annual, two-day talkfest, listening to experts in dozens of fields of excellence, is a mind explosion for a humble hack; trying to interpret what each speaker is saying about their respective field and leaving with a collective outlook on not only what we’ll be driving in the future, but how we’ll interact socially, professionally – and what kind of footprint we can expect to leave on the environment as a ­result.

The crux of predicting trends begins with data, but it also encompasses the environment and sustainability on a holistic level, which, on the surface, seems light years away from the task of selling cars.

Ford’s research collaborations with the world’s largest chip manufacturer, Intel, open a new world where the car you buy tomorrow will already know what music you listen to, what appointments are in your diary and where you like to eat out.

Using personal data that you publicly share with the likes of Apple, Google and Facebook, in addition to preferences that you store in your car, such as your stereo presets and satnav locations, it’s easy to see how on-board computers in the car can become your personal butler.

Data drives the way that we interact with our cars, and while on-board cameras are now widely used to see what’s behind and around us, inboard cameras will soon come into play to further improve safety and convenience.

The key to the joint research project with Intel, called Project Mobii, is its facial-recognition software, which uses a dash-mounted camera to scan the face of the driver as they settle in behind the wheel.

“Project Mobii is a great example of Intel collaborating with Ford to help enable a secure, more connected driving experience,” says Douglas L Davis, a conference speaker and Intel’s vice president, Internet of Things.

Mobii identifies different drivers and automatically adjusts features based on an individual’s preferences, whether it be for company or personal use.

With facial recognition, anyone can get into the driver’s seat, but if the face isn’t recognised, it sends a snapshot to the smartphone of the registered driver, who can allow or deny access to the car, and can then set certain parameters from their phone. For instance, speed limits can be set or mobile-phone use can be restricted while on the go.

Aside from the camera facing the driver, others can be installed inside the car that can be accessed remotely via the owner’s smartphone. This could be a boon for those times when you misplace your bag, laptop or documents, and a quick check via your smartphone allows you to scan the interior to put your mind at ease.

However, the Orwellian side of having eyes watching you as you drive from a remote device doesn’t bear thinking about, at least not until it’s fine-tuned and closer to ­production.

As the registered driver, as soon as your details are verified through facial recognition, your diary and contact book is uploaded, and can be operated via voice command. The system can also register other occupants in the car and will hide any sensitive information that you might have on display as soon as they climb in.

Additionally, the camera recognises hand gestures with voice commands for things like operating the sunroof, stereo or air-con, so that the driver is not distracted by fiddling with buttons and dials. A wave of the arm is good enough for the system to recognise the move and complete the task for you.

Predicting future trends, however, also extends to factors away from the car and in ways where car manufacturing can contribute to the wider environment.

Ford’s Environmental Quality Office manager, Todd Walton, has been studying water sustainability, and with hundreds of millions of people currently unable to access drinkable water, he’s proud that Ford has cut its global water consumption by 10.6 billion gallons between 2000 and 2012.

To put that into perspective, 10 billion gallons is the equivalent of one billion five-minute showers; the amount of water that flows over Niagara Falls in 3.7 hours; 250 million loads of clothes washing; or more than 25,000 Olympic-sized swimming pools.

“Historically,” says Walton, “companies like Ford have addressed the high-cost items first when it comes to sustainability, such as electricity and natural-gas usage, but now we’re seeing a trend where we are operating in more geographical locations where water scarcity is a real issue.

“So we created a strategy to expand what we do for water conservation, and since 2009 we’ve reduced water by 30 per cent per vehicle. Our target was to do that by 2015, so we’re quite proud that we’ve made so much progress over the past seven years.”

In recognition of this, Ford claimed the top spot on Interbrand’s Best Global Green Brands list for 2014. Not only did it trump last year’s winner, Toyota, but it also beat such giants of industry as Johnson & Johnson, Coca-Cola and Microsoft.

Presently, Ford is working with local preschools across India where water quality is poor, which forces students to take time out from school each day to cart water back to the village. By installing water filters in 18 villages, the company is allowing 1,500 children to stay in school. In China, South Africa, Indonesia and Thailand, meanwhile, volunteer employees are installing water tanks in their spare time.

“We are expanding our strategy to work with suppliers,” says Walton, “sharing our best practices with them, and we request them to voluntarily report to us their water usage – and it is making a difference.

“One example is a stamping plant we have in Mexico that was built in 1964, and back then water was readily available, but in the 90s the local government realised that demand was outstripping the water supply, so the plant employees came up with a solution, which reduced water usage by 58 per cent.

“They separated drinkable from non-drinkable water, so they could recycle as much of the non-drinkable water as possible and use it in other areas. In Chennai, our plant has zero water discharge – we recycle 100 per cent of the water, either back into our processes or into irrigation,” he says.

The bad news for the anti-motoring lobby is that the car is not going away anytime soon. However, its role as everyday transport could change dramatically, according to the interactive content creator ­Robert Tercek.

Tercek has created breakthrough entertainment experiences on every digital platform including satellite television, game consoles, broadband internet, interactive television and mobile networks. His theory of vaporisation, or “the disintegration of technologies” into single products (like smartphones having cameras, music players, maps, calculators and more), will eventually include cars.

Could the car be vaporised? Rather than owning a car, will it be something that you subscribe to, like an app, only for the time that you need it?

“It’s already happening,” says ­Tercek. “Car design studios already create virtual interiors instead of having a real car in there, and there are small changes happening, which you may already notice with car ­interiors.

“There’s a trend in consumer electronics towards faceless hardware, which don’t have buttons, they just fit a port, so you can operate it through your smartphone, and something similar is happening with cars. When you get in to a car, Bluetooth automatically picks out your music library or streams music, while you can also control the AC via your phone before you unlock the doors.

“It makes you rethink car ownership, and it could be that the car of the future will not be something we own, but something we subscribe to, where you simply have a portable device and you summon a car when you need it.

“The car appears, you plug in your phone and every device like your contact book, music library, diary, seat and mirror settings will automatically integrate into the vehicle, which will drop you at the office and then continue to pick up its next ­passenger.”

A brave new world, indeed, and two days of listening to these experts – the people who will shape the cars of tomorrow and define how we use them – has proved one thing: technology might be moving with lightning speed, but the automobile will be keeping up with it. There’s simply no other option.

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