At Mobile World Congress (MWC) in 2015 I spoke with James Buczowski a Henry Ford Technical Fellow about the company’s connected ecosystem experiments and the future. In the booth, Ford showed connected bikes talking to connected cars and subsequently developing connected ecosystems allowing cities to direct drivers to available parking spaces, developing usage-based insurance models.
Sometime back I wrote about connecting Waze to fitness apps to allow drivers to know if a bicycle rider was around the next blind corner. I mentioned this to Buczowski who told me the DOT in the US is working to get vehicles to communicate more effectively and the V2X initiative is designed to allow better vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure communications.
Moreover he discussed 802.11p as a dedicated short-range technology with low latency but small payloads very useful in vehicle to vehicle communications.
Every financial analyst around will tell you car companies are facing a threat from the sharing economy where drivers eschew car ownership for shared rides. Buczowski said the company is conducting ride-sharing experiments in places like India where a community shares a single vehicle. They are working on building services around such use cases such as scheduling applications/services.
I asked the obvious question – how do you compete in the sharing economy with the Ubers of the world? He said he doesn’t see a threat to family driving but perhaps younger, single people will choose ride-sharing over ownership. He then made the case that vehicle ownership equates to freedom.
While he has a solid point – most cars spend most of their time idle. What if ride sharing takes up 20% of the slack? Does this mean a commensurate drop in sales?
I asked about the competition from Silicon Valley – the Googles and Teslas of the world and he instead explained some of these companies are logical partners for their vehicles. I countered that cars are becoming more of a tech play and as they do, the Valley will be more competitive. He dismissed the idea explaining cars have always had a lot of technology and they will also have other components such as vehicle dynamics, a suspension and a body.
He went on to say the company sees opportunity for technology to improve in the battery, motor and drivetrain of vehicles.
We then discussed the company’s decision to grow its Palo Alto research group to 125 people where they will focus on smart mobility, autonomous driving, data analytics, human machine interface and deep learning. He likened what they are doing in-part to extending Google Now.
When I first heard the news of this new center, I was a bit surprised because Michigan is where the company is headquartered and the state has been making a massive push to get more tech companies to relocate there. In this case, a local company decided to invest in California. It seems the reasons have to do with not only the ease of hiring the right people in the Bay area but perhaps more importantly learning how Silicon Valley works and applying the lessons learned back to Dearborn.
Ford in other words is learning to better compete with the new entrants in the space by mimicking the cultural dynamics inherent in the startup culture of northern California.
In short, Ford seems to have thought through how to make better connected ecosystems. On the one hand though they seem to not be concerned about new entrants from the Valley but on the other, they seem to realize it is a big enough of a threat that they need to emulate best business practices from the area. Sure, they probably don’t want to go on the record saying they are afraid that an Apple iCar will destroy them but every auto company has to be looking at what happened to Motorola in the cellphone space shortly after their failed Apple partnership.
From this perspective, Ford seems to be covering its bases… Partnering where needed and learning how to be more entrepreneurial and disruptive at the same time.