By Ken Washington, Chief Technology Officer, Ford Motor Company
There’s a new frontier in innovation, one that cannot be seen with the naked eye, but that exists, nonetheless. Everywhere you look, cities, companies and entire countries are pouring significant resources into connectivity, linking up all kinds of things so they can communicate with each other. This connected world will enable capabilities that start bringing to life visions of future transportation only seen before in sci-fi movies.
At Ford, we’ve taken bold steps in this direction, equipping our new vehicles with factory-fitted onboard modems since 2019. We’ve now put more than 6 million connected vehicles on the road across the globe. As more devices are hooked up to the internet and cities build out smart infrastructure, connected vehicles can be deployed to enhance transportation and convenience in innovative ways.
This week, I joined colleagues at Ford and global technology leaders from other companies to share with our employees worldwide real examples of this connected world revolution at our first-ever Connect-Con event. I sensed a dynamic energy from our team as they continue disrupting our business so we can lead this new era of transportation. Our software-led approach is transforming the core of our company and team, and has us on an aggressive path to bring in more energetic tech talent.
So what does an increasingly connected world actually look like? Here’s where things stand today — and how Ford is harnessing this technology to help improve the lives of our customers and those around them.
A taste of the potential for connectivity
Connected vehicles are transforming how we stay in touch with customers. Led by the all-new 2021 F-150, Mustang Mach-E and Bronco, new Ford vehicles are now equipped with advanced capabilities enabling them to receive updates and actually get better over time. This allows for quick and easy wireless upgrades that enhance features, quality, experiences, capability and convenience.* These updates can help improve the ownership experience and may help reduce the need for repair trips.
Some of the first updates this year include our available BlueCruise, an innovation that delivers true hands-free driving capability on highways. All these updates are made possible by an advanced new electrical architecture that enables most of our vehicle modules to be enhanced wirelessly. In short, just like a house with “good bones,” our vehicles have the foundation to ensure they can be enhanced over time at the press of a button. This future-proofs our new vehicles so we can consider ways to improve them as the connected world advances.
Building blocks of a connected world
Today, Ford and others are already working on innovations that will enable the cities and lifestyles of tomorrow.
5G networks: Everyone’s heard about new 5G smartphones, but that’s just the tip of the iceberg. This next-generation wireless network technology will allow vehicles to communicate with the world around them, thanks to its ability to transmit large amounts of data extremely quickly, enabling support for even more connected devices than before. That means 5G can allow vehicles to provide mobile, high-speed internet for improved productivity and let all kinds of devices communicate. This technology is already being deployed and will be mainstream before you know it.
C-V2X: While 5G has the capacity to link vehicles to other things anywhere in the world, cellular vehicle-to-everything technology — or C-V2X — is what will enable vehicles to communicate directly with things nearby. C-V2X technology can “talk” to and “listen” for similarly equipped vehicles, people and infrastructure such as traffic lights — all to relay important information, make roads safe and reduce congestion.
For example, C-V2X-enabled vehicles can communicate with pedestrian cellphones or bikes to alert drivers of potential dangers — even if they, or other advanced vehicle sensors, cannot directly “see” someone walking into their path. We like to say this technology can see around corners.
Ford recently started to offer vehicle-to-infrastructure features in the all-new Ford Explorer and Ford Edge Plus in China. In cities with C-V2X-enabled infrastructure like Wuxi and Changsha, customers are already using the technology to receive red light warnings and other notifications. That makes Ford the first automaker in China to realize commercial deployment of C-V2X technology in production models. Starting in 2022, Ford will be the first automaker to deploy C-V2X in its U.S. vehicles, provided a supportive regulatory framework is in place.
Smart infrastructure: At various locations ranging from the University of Michigan’s MCity connected and autonomous vehicle test site to the public streets of Miami Beach, Florida, Ford is exploring how our vehicles can take advantage of a connected world. This includes trying to understand how self-driving vehicles can communicate with smart infrastructure to receive even more information about traffic and pedestrian activity.
That’s why we’ve installed Ford-built smart nodes in Miami and Saline, Michigan. These nodes are equipped with sensors like radar, LiDAR and cameras and situated above the intersection, so they can offer a birds-eye view of the area to support a self-driving vehicle as it analyzes its surroundings at a street level. While not required for self-driving vehicles to operate safely, these nodes can quickly relay even more information, helping vehicles navigate tricky intersections where infrastructure or road geometries can obstruct views.
What does a connected world look like near-term?
Over the next few years, we’ll see these technologies move from test beds and specific locations to sprawling real-world environments. In collaboration with the state of Michigan and others, Ford is developing a first-of-its-kind corridor for connected and autonomous vehicles. Stretching from Detroit to Ann Arbor along Michigan Avenue, this corridor will allow us to connect, at scale, vehicles and infrastructure to the technologies outlined above — and see how a connected world performs. This will transform one of Michigan’s major streets into a path to the future.
With special lanes purpose-built for connected and autonomous vehicles, our aim is to keep people moving while also bridging the gap between manually driven vehicles and self-driving vehicles. Certain modes of transportation, like first responder vehicles, could receive signal priority so they can get to emergency situations quicker, or connected vehicles could receive alerts for nearby accidents. A key goal is to close long-standing gaps in access to public transit and transportation across southeast Michigan, and we believe connected technologies can help us do that.
Beyond the world of transit, the next step is connecting the two biggest investments in people’s lives — their home and their car. As a technophile, I’ve got one of the smartest houses around, yet it still can’t communicate with my vehicle. The truth is, my smart home does communicate with my vehicles, but only because I am personally prototyping ways we might make this available to everyone with a connected Ford vehicle. So, this is going to happen sooner than you might think.
Imagine setting your thermostat from the car on your way home, hands-free. Your car could remind you to pick up specific groceries on your trip home, based on what the fridge is telling the car that you’re missing. Your security system could even disable the alarm because the house recognizes your Mustang Mach-E pulling into the garage. All these conveniences and more are possible with a connected world, and Ford is already working with numerous companies to enable them in the future.
We also believe quantum computing could be woven into our connected, artificial intelligence-driven systems to further accelerate this transition, including potentially solving traffic and routing problems that are simply impossible to tackle with traditional computers. We already are studying this with Microsoft and are taking further steps based on early encouraging results.
The increasingly complex, connected transportation system — including cars, scooters, infrastructure and mobile pedestrians — demands new ways to think about public-private collaborations, which will be key to helping cities efficiently synchronize traffic flow in ways never before possible. This could potentially reduce crashes, congestion, commuting times and pollution while giving people the opportunity to spend more time with family and friends.
Hollywood’s vision of future transportation, with flying cars and foldable vehicles, may not be here just yet, but the potential for connectivity to change our lives is more apparent than ever. If the pace of advancement has taught us anything, it’s that even more innovations will be here sooner rather than later. So we hope you enjoy the new F-150 and Mustang Mach-E’s great innovations today, because they help show what’s yet to come.
*FordPass Connect (optional on select vehicles), the Ford Pass app and complimentary connected service are required for remote features (see FordPass terms for details). Connected service and features depend on compatible AT&T network availability. Evolving technology/cellular networks/vehicle capability may limit functionality and prevent operation of connected features. Connected service excludes Wi-Fi hotspot.