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Ryan E. Day


Ford’s Path From Innovation to Realization

Polishing the crystal ball in Silicon Valley

Published: Tuesday, August 4, 2015 - 16:25

“The experiments we’re undertaking today will lead to an all-new model of transportation and mobility within the next 10 years and beyond.”
—Mark Fields, president and CEO, Ford Motor Co.

Mark Fields delivered those somewhat prophetic words at the official grand opening of Ford’s Research and Innovation Center (RIC) in January of this year, and Ford wasted no time in getting the innovation ball rolling. One key step was coaxing Ken Washington away from Lockheed Martin Space Systems, where he served as vice president of the Space Technology Advanced Research and Development Laboratories. Washington was appointed vice president of Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford in August 2014.

The RIC, located in California’s Silicon Valley, is the hub of the automaker’s Smart Mobility plan and served as the host facility for this year’s Ford Trend conference, where I was able to speak with Washington about Ford’s Mobility Plan.

Ryan E. Day: When I was invited to the grand opening of the Research and Innovation Center to cover the Smart Mobility Plan, my colleagues and I sort of scratched our heads over Ford’s use of the term “mobility.” We questioned why an automaker would choose that particular term and delve into subjects like parking, ridesharing, and multi-modal transportation. My honest assessment after the event was that, “They’re not really sure what mobility means or is going to mean.”

Washington: That’s right. I really like the way Mark [Fields] put it in his keynote [speech at the Trend 2015 conference], when he said it’s about freedom. People are going to make choices, and if you let them have their choices, people are going to shape their own mobility journeys the way they want. We want our customers to have an experience of interacting with Ford that reflects the fact that we’ve given them those choices.

RED: Let customers define their idea of mobility and then say, “We can do that.”

DW: Well, no two consumers are alike, so we want to have a menu of options. There will always be people who want to have and drive their own car and replace it on a cycle like people have done for the last 50 or 70 years. There are also people who don’t even want to own a car and would rather take a vehicle-on-demand or use public transportation, or ride a bike. And there are all kinds of variants in between.

RED: Which brings us back to Ford’s Smart Mobility Map and the question of just what is mobility?

DW: We know we need to put a little more focus on the future [of what mobility means], and as we transition out of this experiment phase, we’re putting our focus on two very specific areas. One area is flexible usership and ownership. The GoDrive [City Driving On-Demand] experiment really stood out as something that resonated with people—and that mirrors a lot of the success you’re seeing with some startup companies as well. So we want to make that an offering for people to choose and have [that choice] leveraged by our experience as a car company combined with being a mobility company. We know how to make great cars, we have cars that are available, we know what all the sensors do, we know how to make the experience in our cars a good one, so the combination of being a car company and a mobility company is very powerful, and we’re excited to focus on that.

The second area is “What if you could string together multiple [mobility] options?” That’s multi-modal transportation. That idea came to us as we started getting feedback from customers around the fact that the various mobility solutions available weren’t solving their whole need. Whatever solution they chose would get them 80 percent there, but that last mile, so to speak, they needed another way to get to where they’re going. So, they might like shared shuttle service but don’t want to be picked up at their residence due to privacy concerns. Or, people might be excited about our e-bikes, but not everybody wants to ride an e-bike everywhere, just a portion of their trip—and what if it rains? You may have ridden an e-bike to work, but if it’s raining when you’re done, you need a different solution to get home. Do you leave the e-bike at work, can you put it in someone’s car, or your on-demand car, and so on and so on. So this told us that if we architected a set of solutions that would string together, and were designed to work together, it would meet a need. So we’re going to be focusing on that as well.

RED: It seems astounding to me that it was only a matter of months ago Ford issued it’s open innovation Mobility Challenge, yet is already planting two flags in a field [mobility] that is even now not fully articulated or even defined. The methods Ford is using to gather raw data and user feedback were pretty much nonexistent before, and what was available Ford seems to have used in unique ways to go from “Not really sure about a direction” to “Yes, focus on these two areas” is pretty incredible.

DW: I’ve built my career around doing research. The one thing that’s been consistent is there’s no substitute for trying things. Experimentation is hugely important, and you don’t experiment if you don’t want to learn. You experiment so that you can learn. A good example of that was our Data-Driven Insurance experiment. We got pretty far along in the experiment and interacting with the concept. When we started gathering the insights [from users], we found out that, yes, people liked having scores—people are inherently competitive. So if you get a score of 83, your first thought is, “How can I get an 85? What do I have to do to get a 100?”

People really loved that part, but what they hated was for us to try to coach them in the process of driving. So when we were like, “You know, if you hadn’t done a fast acceleration, you might have improved your score,” the people were like, “Leave me alone. I’m driving.” That part they definitely didn’t love! It turned out the value of a score for insurance was less appealing than the value of the score to incentivize people to have better driving habits and better driving patterns and behaviors. So we’re shifting the focus from using that to tailor insurance rates, to using it to incent better driving, which can then be used to open up and advance the economy of car sharing. If you want to engage in car sharing, people might ask, “What’s your score?” Or maybe if scores are just openly posted and your score is high enough, there might be a line of people ready to swap cars with you. Same with vehicles-on-demand: If you have a great score, maybe you’ll get a better rate. So we’re seeing lots of opportunity to leverage the same technology that came out of that same experiment, but for different purposes. That’s what experimentation does for you. You get learning, and then you use that learning to pivot.

RED: Speaking of research, you announced that Ford’s autonomous vehicle program is moving from the research phase into the advanced engineering phase. What does that mean?

DW: We have three phases of our product development cycle. The first phase is research; internally we call it discovery. The discovery phase is to assess whether it can actually be done because not every idea or concept can be implemented—at least not at a reasonable cost. The next step is the advanced engineering phase, where we say, “OK, yes it can be done, now how would you do it?” So now we’re looking at what are the methods, what are the hardware options. How would you develop the necessary algorithms, and then go through the iteration cycles and checking, testing, and validating it? Then you get to the point where you say, “Yep, that works,” and then it’s ready for application [in a vehicle]. Then a vehicle program will identify “this needs to go on this vehicle on this timeline” and so on. Then it goes into the third phase, which is product development. We have a global product development system that takes it from that point all the way to our customers.

RED: What were the criteria for moving the autonomous vehicle program into the next phase?

DW: Well, it’s not as quantitative as you might think, but there are specific gateways that we go through. That includes testing algorithms to show that it can actually work, and evaluating the efficacy of the prototypes built in the discovery phase. Although the prototypes use any number of hardware elements that may not be suitable for a production vehicle, we’re just demonstrating that it can interface with the rest of the vehicle, that we can get the signals off of it for software, and that we can write the software with those signals. We check those things and run tests and do evaluations, and if it passes those tests, we can say it’s ready to go to the next phase. It also requires validation from the whole team that they’re comfortable that it’s ready for the next phase.

RED: And what about moving into the product development phase?

DW: That is a little more quantitative. It means we’ve identified a number of qualified suppliers that make a quality product at a reasonable cost that can be procured and integrated into our vehicles, and we’ve developed algorithms mature enough to run on the hardware we have in our systems, and myriad other parts of the technology, so that we can declare it application-ready. And that means application-ready in the eyes of the people working on vehicle programs, not the people working on the technology program. So to move into the third phase, the vehicle program teams have to be convinced about, “Well, how would that work in this or that vehicle?” We also have to answer all those questions to the satisfaction of the engineering team on the product development side of the house. Then it can be declared application-ready and move to the third phase. But we’re not at that point yet. [laughs]

RED: OK, so I won’t be able to buy a self-driving Mustang next year, but what about the two mobility projects you said Ford was focusing on?

DW: Well, we just announced that we’ll be opening a mobility service for peer-to-peer car sharing. We’ve partnered with Getaround here in the United States and easyCar club in London, and we’re really excited to bring this service to our customers. Flexible user ship and ownership is a real opportunity, and there’s more than one way to do it. So we’re taking what we learned from the initial experiments and applying that learning to our peer-to-peer car sharing and our GoDrive, which we’re now making available on a limited basis starting in London.

RED: My last question for you was going to be, “What at Ford has you fired up right now?” but...

DW: Yep, I just said it. [laughs] I am really fired up about it because I think it’s going to change how people move. And that’s our vision—we put the world on wheels with our founder, and I think we’re going to change how the world moves again with this vision.


About The Author

Ryan E. Day’s picture

Ryan E. Day

Ryan E. Day is Quality Digest’s project manager and senior editor for solution-based reporting, which brings together those seeking business improvement solutions and solution providers. Day has spent the last decade researching and interviewing top business leaders and continuous improvement experts at companies like Sakor, Ford, Merchandize Liquidators, Olympus, 3D Systems, Hexagon, Intertek, InfinityQS, Johnson Controls, FARO, and Eckel Industries. Most of his reporting is done with the help of his 20 lb tabby cat at his side.