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Bill Ford outlines 'Blueprint for Mobility' vision [w/video]

Wed, 29 Feb 2012

Ford Motor Company Executive Chairman Bill Ford outlined a plan this week to develop connected cars to combat congestion on the roads in the future. His speech at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain was the first ever to be delivered at the annual communications industry event by an automotive industry executive. TED was there to capture the event on video (see left).

Ford's proposals were based around the prediction that the number of cars on the world's roads will quadruple by the year 2050 from the current 1 billion to up 4 billion, a problem Ford maintains must be tackled sooner rather than later in order to avoid 'global gridlock'. Technology, he said, is the solution. Ford is the latest high-profile car industry figure to present a keynote speech concerning the hot topic of communication electronics integration, following on from Dr. Dieter Zetsche, Chairman of Daimler AG at this year's Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

Ford, in a preview of the company's ‘Blueprint for Mobility', said, "If we do nothing, we face the prospect of global gridlock, a never-ending traffic jam that wastes time, energy and resources and even compromises the flow of commerce and healthcare."

"The cooperation needed between the automotive and telecommunications industries will be greater than ever as we prepare for and manage the future. We will need to develop new technologies, as well as new ways of looking at the world," he added.

Ford maintains that the issue must be tackled head-on, with companies and industries co-operating. Indeed the obvious possible stumbling block is a lack of standardization, with Fords not being able to communicate with Volkswagen products, for example.

With the advent of enhanced interactivity and connectivity within the transportation industry, if there is to be any headway in addressing the problem of future critical congestion the telecommunications industry's participation would be crucial.

Expanding vehicle markets around the world are already facing congestion issues, with Sao Paolo a prime example. Within the city traffic jams regularly exceed 100 miles and the average commute lasts between 2 and 3 hours a day. Despite this, car buying is growing at a rate of 7.5 percent annually.

The most extreme example was seen in China in 2010, with the longest period of gridlock in the world registered at an amazing 11 days, illustrating just how close some markets are to a significant problem.

In the near-term – 5 to 7 years – Ford stated that he wants his company to be leading the way in developing increasingly advanced in-car mobile communications systems and enhanced interfaces that proactively alert the driver of traffic jams and accidents. Vehicle-to-vehicle warning systems are already being explored at the company's European Research and Advanced Engineering Center in Aachen, Germany, while tech partnerships are being explored in the company's new Silicon Valley research laboratory as part of its West Coast Innovation Network.

Limited autonomous functions for parking and driving in slow-moving traffic are hoped to be delivered that build upon Ford's current Active Park Assist, Adaptive Cruise Control and Active City Stop – all functions that are rapidly being introduced, partly as a counter-point to the increased levels of driver distraction introduced by the amount of information fed to drivers.

More interaction between individual cars on the road is planned, through the use of advanced computing power and numbers of vehicle sensors which will help to reduce the number of accidents at intersections and enabling limited semi-autonomous and autonomous highway lane changing and exiting.

With the advent of ‘The Cloud' it will be possible to communicate with infrastructure that can inform drivers of congestion and provide details of alternative routes of transport as well as reserving parking upon arrival.

"Cars are becoming mobile communications platforms and as such, they are a great untapped opportunity for the telecommunications industry. Right now, there are a billion computing devices in the form of individual vehicles out on our roads. They're largely unconnected from one another and the network," Ford said.

"We'll increasingly take advantage of the car as a rolling collection of sensors to reduce congestion and help prevent accidents. I'm confident that we will see many of these advances on the road in this mid-term period because the early versions are already being designed, and in most cases, tested."

Beyond 2025 Ford predicts the transportation landscape will have changed radically, he added. Pedestrian, bicycle, private car, commercial and public transportation traffic will all be woven into one single network, saving time, lowering emissions, conserving resources as well as improving safety. Smart vehicles with fully autonomous navigation with increased autopilot capacity and autonomous valet functions will deliver incredibly easy parking and storage solutions.

Finally, we will see the creation of a network of mobility solutions with personal vehicle ownership complimented by more connected and efficient shared services, and new business models contributing to improved personal mobility.

This is all further proof of the auto industry's newfound love affair with the tech industry. Whether this is part of a genuine desire to create a better world or an attempt to create the impression that The Car has a future in the rather distopian future suggested by Bill – while simultaneously trying to engage with disinterested Millennials – remains to be seen.

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By Rufus Thompson