Ford has been on a roll ever since it promoted Jim Farley to the C-suite, first as COO and more recently as CEO. Read on as I piece together various technology announcements underpinning the revival and take a look at recent developments for clues as to what the future may hold.
Returning from the Frankfurt Auto Show in September 2019, I wrote an article describing how the automotive industry was undergoing a pivot away from the trend known as C.A.S.E. (connected, autonomous, shared, electric) and towards C.A.P.E. (connected, assisted, personalized, electric). Let’s review announcements from each of those four areas to understand more about Ford’s newfound success.
Ford Power-Up will provide OTA updates for vehicle systems such as BlueCruise, as well as a range of connected vehicle services to be developed with Google. Ford announced a partnership with Qualcomm at CES in 2018 which is certain to lead to the proliferation of 5G cellular connectivity in Ford vehicles over the next couple of years.
While Tesla CEO Elon Musk was busy bragging about “Full-Self Driving” and a one million vehicle robotaxi network, Ford quietly set about developing a partnership with Intel’s Mobileye to develop safe but somewhat mundane Level 1 and Level 2 driver-assistance technology.
“BlueCruise” is Ford’s Level 2 hands-free highway assist system. It features operational design domain limits restricting use to divided highways only, and a robust vision-based driver monitoring system (DMS) to permanently monitor the driver’s attention state and engagement level using head-pose estimation and eye-gaze tracking, thus successfully eliminating automation complacency.
I have spent many hours researching BlueCruise because my analysis suggests Ford has the safest and most sophisticated DMS in a production vehicle today, using the Seeing Machines Fovio processor running its Occula neural processing unit (NPU). Further explanation of this technology is provided in the video below.
The awareness of DMS as a critical safety technology is set to rise dramatically in the short-term, following the inclusion of legislation to monitor for impaired driving in the $1.2 trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill. The importance of the impaired driving legislation to save lives was very clearly spelled out in this announcement from Mothers Against Drunk Driving (MADD).
The role of DMS to passively detect alcohol impaired driving is discussed in detail in this submission document to NHTSA (National Highway Traffic Safety Administration) by Seeing Machines. Research is currently underway to expand the future capability of DMS to also detect drugged driving, in particular for impairment caused by cannabis use.
Ford has provided little detail of BlueCruise thus far and recently announced the OTA rollout for the feature has been delayed until the first quarter of 2022, to allow more time for testing. However, I expect to hear a lot more about the system and especially the competence of its DMS to prevent automation complacency before the end of this year.
With DMS set to become a mandatory requirement in all vehicles to detect for distracted, drowsy and impaired driving, an opportunity has been created for automakers to use the in-cabin driver monitoring camera for the provision of personalized services. This is currently one of the most exciting, fast moving, and innovative areas for automotive development.
In an article last year entitled “Time to Open Eyes to Eye Tracking,” I observed that Google may be developing an eye-gaze controlled version of Android Automotive OS. Although I was a little off target with that specific assessment, I was in the right ballpark.
Subsequent speculation about the Apple Car and even a possible Apple C1 car applications processor formed the basis of my vision of a future where eye-gaze tracking, voice assistants and 5G cloud connectivity would come together to create what I called an “immersive user experience.”
Although the development of an Apple Car is highly speculative, in an absolute masterstroke Ford’s Farley announced the appointment of Doug Field as chief advanced technology and embedded systems officer. Field joins Ford from none other than Apple, where he served as VP, Special Projects Group. In an interview since joining Ford, Field observed “the car will become an immersive experience.”
Based on announcements from Qualcomm, my assessment is that Field could already be evaluating a radical redesign of Ford’s infotainment system, combining Qualcomm’s fourth-generation cockpit applications processor and 5G baseband processor, with Seeing Machines’ DMS and Google’s Android Automotive OS.
This would create a never-before-seen automotive immersive experience delivering as yet undefined personalized services but also integrating the most advanced capabilities of the Seeing Machines Occula NPU to minimize driver distraction and monitor driver workload.
I always assumed that Apple would lead this highly innovative in-cabin development. However, with Farley’s leadership and Field’s vision, it is instead Ford that looks to have all the necessary building blocks in place to accomplish it first, possibly as soon as the 2024 model year. Who would have forecast that two years ago?
Forget about self-driving. The greatest opportunity for automakers to generate value-added, subscription-based services is a combination of 5G cellular, infotainment, and DMS. That’s Qualcomm, Google, and Seeing Machines.
Ford has made headlines this year with the launch of its Mustang Mach-E and the announcement of the F-150 Lightning, an all-electric version of its best-selling pickup truck. In September, Ford announced an $11.4 billion investment in electric vehicles to create 11,000 jobs with a campus in Tennessee and twin battery plants in Kentucky. Ford targets forty percent electric car sales by 2030 and owns a minority holding in electric truck startup Rivian.
Storm clouds gather
Consumer Reports has described in detail how Tesla’s marketing hype has far exceeded its technological competence, while the appointment of Missy Cummings, an engineering professor at Duke University and outspoken critic of Tesla’s indifference on safety, to the role of senior safety advisor at NHTSA confirms the regulatory storm clouds are gathering.
With National Transportation Safety Board chair Jennifer Homendy publicly criticizing Tesla’s “self-driving” features and NHTSA conducting a formal safety probe into the automaker, it is no surprise that Elon Musk is choosing to now sell billions of dollars of Tesla stock, a portent to the next chapter of the Tesla story.
Free of the baggage of “Full-Self Driving” and Autopilot, Ford is rapidly eroding Tesla’s lead with a technology strategy covering the key areas of connectivity, assisted driving, personalization, and electric vehicles. Under Farley’s leadership, Ford is showing not only that technological innovation and safety are not mutually exclusive, but that it is well positioned for a golden period ahead.