SAN FRANCISCO—If you say that the car industry is evolving rapidly, you won’t get an argument from me. Henry Ford launched the modern way of making automobiles more than 100 years ago, and then not much changed for a century. But now just about everything is on the table, including the sacred act of driving itself.
The Further With Ford event moved from the San Francisco wharf to the heart of Silicon Valley in an effort to highlight the changes that are coming. In the next decade, we may not be sitting in the back of a self-driving car, but we will be letting the connected car take over many functions, and we will be becoming both more urban and more multi-modal, giving up some auto ownership and replacing it with public transit and car sharing. Millennials and Gen Z will be in the driver's seat, and they've got some concerns about driving.
The Ford event looked at what we might expect in the next five years. “We’re another step closer to full autonomy,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technology officer. “It’s moving into an advanced engineering project. I fully believe self-driving cars will soon be possible in geo-fenced areas with advanced mapping available.” That translates as "very soon," into cars that will be able to drive by themselves on interstates.
I asked Jim Buczkowski, director of Ford research and innovation in Dearborn, when he thought that fully autonomous cars might be realized, and he said (diplomatically) “it depends.” Those “geo-fenced” cars are coming “sooner rather than later,” but there are still liability issues, regulations that need to be issued, and technology to make absolutely dependable. Buczkowski admitted that weather is still a challenge, because slush and snow can interfere with sensors. Autonomy can’t be weather-dependent.
Ford is working with a fleet of Fusions on cutting-edge autonomy, and meanwhile we’re seeing such available-now technology as lane-keeping, self-parking and traffic jam assistance.
Here’s some other things that Ford is working on:
Smile, You’re on Camera. In 1990, Americans took eight billion photos—on film. In 2014, 800 billion pictures (digital) were shared on social media alone. There were also 93 million selfies taken that year.
We’re nuts about cameras, and they’re today’s cupholders, said Jennifer Shaw, a driver assist supervisor at Ford. “Cameras in cars used to be a novelty, but now you can’t find a car without one,” she said. Ford introduced its first cupholder on the Bronco in 1984, and its first camera on the 2007 Expedition.
Today, Ford is putting 15 million of them on cars annually, and consumers cite them as among the most desirable tech. A rear camera will be required by federal safety regulators in 2018. The 2015 Ford F-150 truck has five cameras available, and there are three on the Explorer and Edge.
It’s like an arms race: The next Ford Super Duty will have up to seven cameras. Coming are coatings that will keep the cameras from getting dirty (washers are used now) and apps that will let you see the car camera’s image on your cellphone. Imagine, you can actually see someone steal your car in real time!
I asked a rude question about the “objects in mirror are closer than they appear” thing, complete with Jurassic Park reference. Why is it that rear cameras have exactly the same issue? You better believe that car you’re seeing is closer than it appears. Shaw said it had something to do with the need to give the widest possible view, which affects perspective. “But you can see there’s a car behind you and you know that you have to stop,” she said.
Make it 3D, and Make It Snappy. Ford is working with a company called Carbon3D on new printing technology that is 25 to 100 times faster than conventional 3D. With something called Continuous Loop Liquid Interface Production (CLIP), layering is eliminated and, according to Kirk Phelps, a vice president, parts can be manufactured that are indistinguishable from today’s injection-molded components.
In other words, 3D can take a big step up to turning out end-use stuff. It looked kind of like magic: Fully formed parts emerged out of a bath of resin. “And we can also cast parts in metal,” said Ford’s Ellen Lee. “The future is almost here.”
Food or Fabric? Debbie Mielewski is Ford’s long-time sustainable materials guru, and she’s had some notable triumphs lately. The average car has 300 pounds of plastic, 10 percent of the total weight. And carmakers are frantic to cut out the pounds, so Mielewski’s lightweight natural materials are suddenly popular in Dearborn. “They used to throw me out of conference rooms,” she said, “but then oil went over $100 a barrel.”
The 2008 Mustang got soy-based seat foam, and it went wide after that—there are now 31,251 soybeans in every North American-built Ford. That little move has reduced carbon dioxide emissions by more than 20 million pounds, and saves five million pounds of petroleum annually.
The Ford Flex has 20 percent wheat straw in its storage bins since 2010. Other materials include rice hulls and cellulose from trees. Ford is also looking at making natural rubber from Russian dandelions, fabric from corn sugar, and reinforced plastic from the stems, seeds and skins left over from making Heinz ketchup.
It’s a Lightweight. Matt Zaluzec is a Ford materials guy, and his baby is a normal-looking Ford Fusion that lost 800 pounds with plentiful aluminum (two thirds of the body) and high-strength steel. There’s a carbon-fiber instrument panel and wheels, hollow steel springs, diecast aluminum shock towers and lightweight glass (via supplier Corning). Best of all, the Fusion runs a tiny one-liter engine without any loss of performance. Zaluzec couldn’t give me a fuel economy figure, but he said it’s probably comparable to a Ford Fiesta. No rides, but he told us it handles great.
A new Ford GT was also on hand, and that tour de force makes extensive use of carbon fiber for lightness.
Trying Out Two Wheelers. “There are 28 megacities [with populations over 10 million] in the world, and there will be 41 by 2030,” said Bruce Southey, a Britain-based innovation designer for Ford. “Half of us live in cities now, but it will be two thirds then.” And that’s why Ford is thinking about bicycles, especially for the “last mile” of the commute.
Ford held a global competition, beginning a year ago, urging company employees to submit urban transportation concepts, and folding electric bikes were popular. Tom Thompson, whose day job is designing engines, was a winner with an e-bike, MoDe:Pro, that could be used by food delivery companies. One or more of the bikes is stored (and charged) in the back of a van, and then used to make just-in-time deliveries.
Ford also showed off the MoDe:Flex, which is a smartphone-controlled e-bike that fits in the back of just about any Ford vehicle. Another program, InfoCycle, is collecting data from urban bike riders using sensors.
The Car That Comes When Called. The Ford Escape is called the Kuga in Germany, and it was a Euro-spec model that the company used to demonstrate its latest self-driving car. The Kuga comes when it’s called! Using his smartwatch and a remote to tap into ultrasonic technology, Joseph Urahne, a Cologne-based tech specialist with advanced driver assist systems, was able to back his Kuga out of a virtual garage. As long as he stayed within 10 yards of the car, he could keep it following him at a walking pace. “It’s like walking your dog, but with a car,” somebody said.
Ford is partnered with Continental, Bosch, Delphi and others on the technology, which is indeed one more step on the road to self-driving cars. “We expect to see it on the road in five years,” Urahne said. Here’s video: