How Ford Innovation Center Tackles Transportation Tech

Dave Hatton, a Ford global product manager, is wearing a Motorola smartwatch with the MyFord mobile app that syncs with an electric vehicle to show its current status including the charge level. ALISA PRIDDLE/DETROIT FREE PRESS/TNS

As cities grow more congested, Ford wants to be there for customers whether they buy, rent or share a car, or use a Ford app to map their trip.

(TNS) — Henry Ford put the world on wheels. A century later, the company he founded is preparing for a world where congestion demands other alternatives, including bikes, apps, public transportation and car sharing.

“It can make a material difference in people’s lives by offering more choices and affordable and accessible mobility even if it is not a car,” said Ken Washington, Ford’s new head of research and advanced engineering.

Much of the work is happening at the new Ford Research and Innovation Center that opened in Silicon Valley in January and already employs about 50 people tackling projects involving autonomous vehicles, connectivity and the use of big data.
When Ford opened the center in Palo Alto, it announced 25 global mobility experiments.

In San Francisco last week, chief executive Mark Fields said about 16 projects have concluded. Some completed their mission, some shifted their focus. Some have become pilot programs or progressed to the advanced engineering phase.


Here are some projects still in the works

Infocycle data gathering

Sensors attached to 12 bikes in Palo Alto and Dearborn, Mich., gathered data on cycling patterns and conditions, creating a map of the city for cyclists, showing routes popular for offering shade or to be avoided because of potholes and poor lighting.

Principal researcher Sudipto Aich is working on smaller, lighter sensor kits to put on 1,000 bikes by year-end.

“Bikes are a great way to probe the city,” Aich said. “Bike companies are unlikely to do this research.”


Electric-assist bikes

From a companywide contest came three electric-assist bikes: the MoDe:Me personal commuter; MoDe:Flex enthusiast bike and the MoDe:Pro for commercial use like food delivery.

The motorized bikes fold and fit into Ford vehicles. The electric assist ensures you don’t get too sweaty on the trip, can handle hills and safety cross busy intersections or roundabouts, said Tom Thompson, a powertrain engineer in the United Kingdom and one of the inventors.

They all use an app that integrates driving, parking, public transportation and cycling into a seamless route. As a safety feature, the bike cannot operate without the owner’s smartphone.

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Car swapping, sharing, renting: Ford announced the Peer-2-Peer Car Sharing pilot program for 14,000 Ford Credit customers in six U.S. cities and 12,000 in London.

The program is in partnership with Getaround, a ride-sharing software company in the U.S., and with easyCar Club in London to hook up renters and users, like an Airbnb for cars.

Letters went out two weeks ago to customers in San Francisco, Berkeley and Oakland, Calif., Portland, Ore., Chicago and Washington — the six cities Getaround operates in, said David McClelland, Ford Credit’s vice president of marketing.

The pilot will run for six months.

Research shows Generations Y and Z are practical and will embrace the opportunity to share and save money, Fields said.

A survey of rental car users by Enterprise which has the Enterprise Rent-A-Car, National Car Rental and Alamo Rent A Car brands, found that renters need a car for daily tasks, 27 percent say it prompted them to shop for a new car and two-thirds changed their perception of a certain model and considered purchasing a specific nameplate based on the make of their rental car.

“This research reinforces our belief that every car rental is an extended test drive,” said Kurt Kohler, senior vice president, fleet, Enterprise Holdings.

“Peer2Peer could grow to a business we could make money from,” Fields said.

Another program is GoDrive, a public car-sharing pilot that offers one-way car rentals with Focus Electric cars and guaranteed parking in London where parking spots are hard to find. There are 50 cars in 20 locations. You pay as you go, by the minute.

Ford has also tested car sharing with an employee car-swapping program, in which customers arrange swaps through an app. Fields said almost all swaps were accepted and it ran smoothly in part by recording the fuel level at the start of each swap to ensure that the cars are returned with the same amount.


Parking made easy

Parking is increasingly a problem, which led to a number of experiments that mine data to help drivers park and pay and help cities understand parking patterns and needs, said Dave McCreadie, who works on electric vehicle infrastructure and the smart grid.

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“Parking spotter” uses sensors on cars to find spots and feed the data to a cloud-based system. Ford worked with Georgia Tech on the concept of repurposing existing sensors that prevent collisions to look for empty spots. It is a less expensive solution than parking apps that use videos or require sensors embedded in the pavement.

Another project produced the “painless parking” app that tells you if the spot you find is legal — cities like London change the rules for spots over the course of the day — while offering a seamless way to pay for it.

A third experiment looks at using the cellular network to drive a car by remote control. This virtual valet would drop you off and park itself at an affordable lot farther away.

Shuttle: A shared van service for test customers in New York and London offers a guaranteed seat, fare, travel time and Wi-Fi from virtual stops across the city.


Driving-score data

Over 90 percent of people think they are good drivers, Fields said. Data collection helps provide drivers with a score that can be used to decide whether to share your car. Or customers could get better rates if they have better driving scores.



Dave Hatton, global product manager, is working on an update of the MyFord mobile app for release this summer to be used with the smartwatch to monitor a Ford electric vehicle.

Apple or Android watches can use the app to check charge status, look for available charging stations, trip info, start your car remotely, check tire pressure and alert you to move your fully charged car so you don’t pay a penalty for overstaying.

As cities grow more congested, Ford wants to be there for customers whether they buy, rent or share a car, or use a Ford app to map their trip.

“We need to be there for people who don’t want to buy a car as well as in all the cities where more people will buy a car,” Washington said.

And they can maintain a dialogue via an app even if they never go to a dealership.


This feature originally appeared in GovTech.


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