In Bill Ford's Future, Cars Are Nodes On Giant Networks

Henry Ford's great grandson offers a vision that transforms the automobile.

The auto industry has long talked about "the connected car." But Ford Motor chairman Bill Ford's vision stretches far beyond simply allowing your vehicle to connect to the Internet for better directions or groovy Pandora tunes.

Instead, he sees the car of the future as a node on a giant network that helps optimize the driving experience for everyone.

For example, let's say you're driving home late at night. "Why should that traffic light be red, and you have to stop and burn fuel when nobody's coming?" Ford told Fast Company in an exclusive interview at an event in Mountain View, Calif., Monday night to formally open the company's new Silicon Valley research lab. "Why shouldn't [the light] sense you coming, go to green, and let you go through?"

Ford's vision centers around using the car, and all the data its sensors can collect, to combat what he sees as the coming global gridlock. "How are we going to move people in a world that's going from 7 billion people to 9 billion people?" he said. "How will we avoid the megacities--which will exist by mid-century--being completely frozen with traffic?"

"To do that, the nature of the car has to change dramatically," says Ford, the great-grandson of the original auto innovator, Henry Ford. 

"Why shouldn't [the traffic light] sense you coming, go to green, and let you go through?"

Ford envisions a proliferation of sensors within the vehicle itself and an open-source approach to software and hardware that allows third parties to use data generated by Ford vehicles to build new services that were never before possible. For example, a San Francisco company, Weather Underground, is already exploring how to use data collected from windshield wiper activity to create more fine-grained weather predictions. This vision, Bill Ford says, requires a "melding of the auto industry with the tech industry." Hence the new lab. Ford Motor will use it as a home base to reach out to the tech community to find partners and collaborators. 

But the hub will also help smaller, cutting edge companies connect to the automotive behemoth. "If you're a startup out here and you have a great idea, you [probably] don't have a clue how to get a hold of someone in Dearborn," Ford says.

Ford Motor already collaborates with Microsoft, Apple, and Google on some of the company's more near-term initiatives, especially infotainment ones, like making sure the company's cars and Apple's devices are compatible.

As for which partners will help enact the meta-congestion-battling strategy, Ford says the company doesn't know who those will be yet. "We're starting that conversation with a number of companies," he says. "There's not going to be one solution."

Ford isn't the only automotive company setting up shop in Silicon Valley. A GM lab moved in six years ago and has been working on projects like the Cadillac CUE infotainment interface. VW also has an electronics research lab here, exploring systems to start and stop cars automatically in traffic jams and monitor driver stress levels. 

For its part, Ford Motor has created OpenXC, a platform that allows third-party developers to access certain types of vehicle data. The first beta developer kits were shipped out to universities like Stanford, MIT, and the University of Michigan earlier this year.

Bill Ford says he can't pinpoint a date when his congestion-battling vision will become a reality, but he suspects it will be sooner rather than later. "When we first started talking about this, we thought it was going to happen in 30 years," he says. "Then it was 20. But now, it's [happening at] the rate of technology. You see it out here. It's very fast."

E.B. Boyd is FastCompany.com's Silicon Valley reporter. Twitter | Google+ | Email

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