Four years ago, two of my close friends were driving along Chicago’s Interstate 55 and discovered a large chair had somehow wound up sitting in the middle of their lane. The minivan they were behind stopped abruptly, resulting in a major crash. To my shock, no one was hurt.
“Thankfully they were in a Ford,” one emergency respondent said, surveying the scene. It was a 2013 Ford Focus, to be exact, and it was the first time I had heard the term “crumple zone,” which it turns out is a part of both the front and rear of the vehicle designed to cave in easily during a crash, in order to absorb impact and reduce injuries. After more resarch, I found out that the technology in the Ford Focus was designed to include a stiff body structure created using laser-welded, high-strength steels. The rigid shell cell is surrounded by energy-absorbing crumple zones that help minimize the effects of a collision.
This technology is obviously a far cry from the cars that came off the revolutionary assembly line Henry Ford introduced to the world. He had a dream to “put the world on wheels,” and he did just that with the Model T. But today, Ford’s technology stretches from making safety features such as crumple zones to digital innovations that refine the driving experience. While Michigan and Detroit remain the seat of the auto industry—an area built on miles per hour—the future is being built in collaboration with a part of the United States built on megabits per second.
In January 2015, the historic auto manufacturer opened the doors to the Ford Innovation Lab in the heart of Silicon Valley—Palo Alto, California. Over time, the 25,000-square-foot facility at Stanford Research Park will become home to more than 120 employees, giving Ford one of the largest automotive research teams in the area and a major presence in one of the most dynamic, innovative business cultures in the world.
The team at Ford Innovation Labs will also play a key role in advancing the Ford Smart Mobility initiative by accelerating innovation in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, and big data. It’s in the heart of this digital revolution that advanced researchers, engineers, and scientists at Ford are creating new connections between automotive and computer technology. “You look at cars now and they’re more computer than mechanical. Obviously cars can’t run without mechanical wheels and engines, but computers are driving those,” says Gabe Karp, partner for Detroit Venture Partners.
In fact, it is only within the past few years that vehicles have transitioned from being entirely analog. In the 1900s, Ford’s series of complex mechanical interactions gave humans the capability of engineered mobility. Today’s vehicle is still built on the same concept, but progress has opened the gates to luxury in the form of digital technology in collaboration with Silicon Valley. One of those projects is being led by Shounak Athavale, IT lead at the Palo Alto Research and Innovation Center, who is working toward a future where cars communicate in order to reduce congestion and create cleaner cities.
Over the last twenty years, Athavale has been motivated to find solutions that will make a difference for drivers. He is now working with HP on Fleet Insights. HP owns a fleet of cars used by its sales and services, and Ford Innovation Labs instrumented this fleet with plug-in devices allowing data to be gathered on acceleration, GPS locations, refueling destinations, and more.
On Ford Innovation’s website, Athavale says much of the software being implemented in cars is being directly connected to the Internet. “If you knew where each car is starting and what is their destination, then you could do a route plan that not only helps congestion, but can reroute you [in the greenest], [fastest], and [cheapest] ways, and help the whole city move faster,” he explains in a video presentation.
At the same time, Ashley Micks, model-based engineer for Ford, is using simulations to develop the algorithms that will help Ford’s vehicles drive themselves. Simulations can save an abundance of time and money by reducing the number of real-world tests needed, according to Ford’s website.
Micks’s approach allows for more testing, tweaking, and a faster road to a smarter vehicle. “Radar, lidar, camera, ultrasound—each of the sensors has their own strength and weaknesses, which is why we’re trying to do sensor fusion and trying to bring together the data from all of them and build a more complete picture of the vehicle surroundings,” she says on Ford Innovation’s website in a video presentation. “When you’re able to simulate a lot of that you can go into the real world test with a more mature algorithm and you can use your time more efficiently and your resources. You can also simulate a lot of situations that might be difficult or dangerous to set up in the real world.” Further, Ford accentuates that autonomous driving can have a large impact on peoples’ lives. “It could be avoiding fatal accidents and also mobility—giving freedom to people who might not be able to drive otherwise,” she says on the video.
From the Ford Model T and the assembly line to race cars and innovation, there is no telling where the breakthroughs at Ford Innovation will lead the automobile industry next. Autonomous and connected vehicles may change roadways forever, provide mobility, and even keep people safe when an unexpected chair pops up in the middle of a busy highway.
Karp says one of the reasons Detroit is on the rise is because the city truly embodies a collaborative spirit. Now, one of its most storied companies is taking that Midwest hospitality to the West Coast in partnership for a new future of horsepower. “The reason Ford wanted to move out here in the first place was so we could be near all the innovation,” Micks says on Ford Innovation’s video. “[To be near] the startup companies and the nontraditional suppliers who might be able to offer new ideas and new technologies.”