Ford Drives Into the Future With Analytics

Personalization and electrification are roadways to the automotive future as carmakers work on creating unique, eco-friendly driving experiences for drivers.

In the future, "software inside the vehicle will tell the control systems how to behave based on the environment it's operating in and what the driver is asking from the automobile," said Ryan McGee, a technical electrification expert with Ford Advanced Research & Engineering in Dearborn, Mich.

And analytics is helping pave the way, McGee told us in a recent phone interview. "Analytics is something we are using to improve the way future vehicles will work."

Since McGee works on electrification, he described one potential scenario for a plugin hybrid -- part battery electric vehicle and part hybrid electric vehicle. A plugin hybrid uses a large energy battery that supports significant driving distances. As that battery depletes, the driver switches over to the gasoline engine, and the car runs like a regular hybrid until the battery is recharged.

"So with this plugin technology, one of the things as engineers we need to think about is that energy in the battery. How are we going to use it? Where along the route are we going to spend it? It's a decision that the onboard vehicle system needs to make. OK, I've got this certain kilowatt hours of energy. How do I use it?"

McGee raised the possibility of various entities -- local, state, and federal governments, for example -- defining geo-fence areas in which plugin hybrid drivers would want to limit engine operation. In such cases, the control system would have to recognize a green zone in the car's route and understand that the vehicle needs to operate emissions-free in that area if possible.

"It would save energy so when it gets to the geo-fence area, there's enough energy to drive through it electrically," he said. "Without geo-fence information like that, the car would use the energy as soon as it could." And without analytics, the control system wouldn't know how much energy to save for driving through the green zone.

Analyzing an individual's driving history would help the control system make decisions based on the way the driver handles the vehicle. Does he drive the speed limit or faster? Does he use cruise control for steady speed? Does he take a certain route through the green zone? "If we can learn about driver behavior over time, we can learn how to save energy for that green zone. That's one example of how looking at driving history can improve the way the system operates."

Predictive analytics are equally as important, McGee said. He cited Ford's experimentation with the Google Prediction API. The automaker seeded the Google Prediction API service's machine learning algorithm with a bunch of driving history data for modeling. With a model, the vehicle could then ask at the start of a trip, "Where I am going next?" McGee said.

"Let's face it, most people are fairly habitual, like me -- if it's five in the evening and I'm at work and I turn on my car, 99 percent of the time I'm going home." Using the Google Prediction API "tuned with past driving data, we could get a prediction about where the car would be going next. Once we know where the car is going to go next, we can compare that information with green zones and automatically plan how the energy gets used without the driver really being involved."

Even if the prediction is slightly off -- five miles one way or the other -- the analytics could still prove valuable. "I may end up saving the right amount of energy anyways if it's close enough."

Ford has lots more to learn and discover on this journey, especially about how to collect, model, and analyze data in "a smart way," McGee said. But it doesn't plan on being taken for a ride.

If your car could analyze your driving behavior, what would it have to say about you? Share on the message board below.

Beth Schultz, Editor in Chief

Beth Schultz has more than two decades of experience as an IT writer and editor.  Most recently, she brought her expertise to bear writing thought-provoking editorial and marketing materials on a variety of technology topics for leading IT publications and industry players.  Previously, she oversaw multimedia content development, writing and editing for special feature packages at Network World. In particular, she focused on advanced IT technology and its impact on business users and in so doing became a thought leader on the revolutionary changes remaking the corporate datacenter and enterprise IT architecture. Beth has a keen ability to identify business and technology trends, developing expertise through in-depth analysis and early adopter case studies. Over the years, she has earned more than a dozen national and regional editorial excellence awards for special issues from American Business Media, American Society of Business Press Editors,, and others.

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Re: What? Is the blinker broken?
  • 5/17/2012 3:39:58 PM


I'm sorta reviving this thread because of some recent local discussion on this issue (see below). (Sorry this is a rather lengthy post...)

Hospice_Houngbo commented 


[quoting me] "Currently I'm extremely skeptical about the general, routine viability of robot cars" 

I see you are a prudent person, and you're right. Many security, privacy and ethical issues will need to be resolved before those cars go mainstream. However I'm excited about the potential of this technology, expecially now that I'm taking programming a robotic car course.


OK ... well, Ben Wear, the transportation beat reporter/columnist for our local paper (Austin American-Statesman) recently (May 13th) happened to address this issue in his weekly Getting There column, in an article titled 'Driverless cars? Not so fast' — here's the link to the full article:

Here are some relevant quotes:
The news last week was that the State of Nevada issued a special testing license for the cars to Google, which apparently is not satisfied controlling only our cyberlives. To qualify for the license, under a law passed by the Nevada Legislature, each vehicle has to have logged 10,000 miles off the public streets, and the company has to have posted a $1 million surety bond.

The idea behind all this, we're told, is that human beings are doing such a lousy job of driving cars — something like 30,000 deaths a year in U.S. vehicle accidents — that surely a Spockmobile could do a better job. General Motors, Stanford University researchers and others are working on similar technology.

The mind reels, first of all, to envision a legislature that would pass such a law — picture the good ol' boys and girls at our statehouse doing such a thing. But they are into gambling out there, after all. Google vehicles — modified Toyota Priuses equipped with cameras and radar on the roof as well as GPS technology, wheel-motion sensors and who knows what other computer wizardry aboard — have already made trips under controlled circumstances on the Las Vegas Strip and in Carson City, Nev.

The vehicles will have special red license plates that say "autonomous vehicle." I'm guessing that even vehicles with a "student driver" sign on them will keep a wide berth when one of those comes rolling by.

I've been hearing from advocates of this technology for a few years, touting how the technology would expand the capacity of roads by allowing these robotically driven cars to zip along at 70 miles per hour essentially bumper to bumper.

The idea was that the cars would be communicating with one another so perfectly that if car A starts to decelerate or brake, then car B, inches behind, will do likewise essentially at the same time.

But, OK, let's say that the technology will be perfected and could actually do that. That a squirrel could run out in front of car A, in my example, and that the "brain" of car A possesses enough love of all of God's creatures to actually brake for a squirrel. And cars B through Z all could stop in sync with that first car.

Fine. But what if car J, which is 6 years old and hasn't been maintained properly by its, uh, master, gets a computer headache. Chain reaction time, folks.

"Computers fail every day," said Scott Wright, who runs Casis Village Shell, where I've been getting repair work done for years. "If you're running down the road at 60 mph and the computer fails, what does it do? Does the car run right into the center guardrail?"

Wright was also trying to get his mind around what this would mean for repair shops like his. Cars in recent years have already gone from one or two computer modules, he said, to 15 to 20. And mechanics must have computer technology on premises to analyze what's going on with all of those modules, and mechanics trained to work with that. He said he could envision such training being hard to come by, at least initially.

And then there's that interim period on the way to this supposed driverless future, when most cars would still be human-controlled and a few cars would be driver-free.

Could they program the autonomous cars to communicate with human drivers, with people "talking" with head shakes, grimaces and single-digit salutes while the other driver is invisible and mute? Talk about road rage.

Besides, driving — actually piloting the car — is fun for a lot of people, me included. I'd much rather be behind the wheel, for instance, than be a passenger. Making all those decisions, bearing that responsibility, feeling the machine respond to your whims, is stimulating.

Even though Ben Wear and I have often disagreed on critical issues like mass transit, I sensed a meeting of minds here and wrote him the following:
Hi Ben,

Enjoyed your column on Driverless Cars today. I share your skepticism.

I've been discussing this issue for several years.... Some transit advocates favor this concept (and they think it could be applied to buses and streetcars too), but I remain strongly skeptical.

Incidentally, some pro-highway advocates ... ardently support driverless cars, mainly because they think this will eliminate the advantage of trains to run in, well, trains, which reduces cost (the passenger-to-driver ratio) and increases capacity compared with motor vehicles, especially personal cars.

However, I see problems in addition to the ones you raised in your column.

• Liability — I'd see some rather serious liability issues, especially from the standpoint of insurance companies. Are they really gonna give you the same rate if you let your car run around driving itself? Also, what happens in the case of an accident — as well as you, does the vehicle manufacturer (e.g., Toyota) assume liability? The electronics guidance supplier? Will all of you get sued?

And think about the issue of responsibility. If you had let the robot drive, and it has an accident, you could be held liable for not being in control. If you didn't let the robot drive, well, the plaintiff could say you failed to allow the superior technology have control, which would have ensured safety and no accident. (Nonsense, but they'll argue that...)

• Safe speed — I would think these cars would be darn slow in many situations, such as traveling through neighborhood streets or even larger, non-grade-separated arterials. Designers would have to configure the controls to account for the unexpected. As we're traveling, we human drivers can judge driving speed based on factors we interpret in a wide range of vision. If we see a wide-open, empty street, we might drive much faster, but if we see kids playing basketball in a driveway, we'll probably slow down, because we know that that ball can bounce into the street, and we know that kids aren't all that safety-conscious, so they'll run after it. We can be prepared for that, but the car probably won't. Therefore, its speed will probably be set for, say 10 mph or something, just so it can stop quickly for ANY unforeseen contingency.

You can imagine what it would be like driving behind somebody's new gizmo-equipped robot car — I'd predict it would be slow as a turtle, and annoyed drivers would be desperately trying to get around it.

And what about the robot car owners — what if they're in a hurry to get to that hot date or job interview or something? I would imagine there would be a lot of punching of the Override button with drivers taking control, just to speed things up ... thus defeating the purpose of the robot control.

• Techno-hubris — You've touched on what I also see as excessive reliance on pristine technological performance and the potential for a lot of technical snafuing. I'll just underscore one aspect — GIS. These cars rely on absolutely accurate GIS. I like GIS as a tool as much as most people — especially useful on trips — but are we really prepared to let it take control of our cars?

I refer you to that insurance company commercial (within the last couple of years) where the driver is blithely and obediently following the route instructions from his GIS, and on his final turn it crashes him into a storefront. 'Nuff said...
Ben wrote back appreciatively, said "Wish you made them to me BEFORE I wrote the column, so I could steal them without remorse!"

Ford Drives Into the Future With Analytics
  • 4/4/2012 6:44:16 PM

Clever Question! Ford sees how to envision predictive analytics for its automobiles and thinks innovatively.

Re: What? Is the blinker broken?
  • 3/2/2012 9:14:52 AM

@Lyndon_Henry -- it is a brave new world, indeed. Cool from a technology perspective, daunting from a taxpayer perspective, and scary from a privacy perspective.

Re: Analytics in your car
  • 3/2/2012 2:23:31 AM
1 saves

Beth, companies can incorporate such interesting features, but again it's all depends on how the driver is making use of it. Recently I had seen an instance in a hospital, where the office boy is smoking inside a room, after disconnecting the smoke detector and fire alarm. So facilities may be there and the effectiveness of the system depends on how generous the facilities are using.

Re: What? Is the blinker broken?
  • 3/1/2012 3:00:41 PM

Thanks very much for the links, I'll have a look.

I really like the idea of great efficiency in local government but not at the expense of individual liberties. I hope required GPS doesn't become mandatory.

Re: What? Is the blinker broken?
  • 3/1/2012 12:20:52 PM

TinyM writes

I didn't know about the London "Green Zones" and access fees.



London doesn't call it a "Green Zone", they call it a Congestion Charging Zone. Somehow they use cameras to track the vehicles going in and out of the zone — rather like traffic cameras getcha here, I suspect.

Here's info on this:

Someone else on A2 may be more familiar with the nuts and bolts of this technology than I am. Do they have scanners that can decipher and read the license number from the photo? Or bazillions of Filipinos or Indians or Bangladeshis poring over the photos to render the license numbers?

Anyway, some U.S. cities are salivating over the possibilities of this, but the logistics are kinda daunting — so many access points into a city's CBD (central business district). Lotsa cameras and associated hardware. Lotsa maintenance. Expensive. I don't know how London handles this.

Obviously, GPS tracking would enable U.S. cities to fairly easily and far more affordably implement all this convenient fee assessment for those who wish to drive into their CBDs. (Keep in mind that this is IN ADDITION to fees imposed for parking.) There would be some extra investment in hardware and software, but the local municipal revenue gain would almost surely be worth it ... to local officials.

But, darn it, it's dependent on everybody conveniently having tracking GPS in their vehicles. (Federal and state highway officials have been systematically trying to muster legislative support for that for years, and seem to be slowly succeeding. Right now, it's the kind of technology you'll need to see if your significant other is cheating...)

Brave New World with Big Brother!

Re: Analytics in your car
  • 3/1/2012 8:05:42 AM

@Daniel, it's be interesting to study whether such alerts are effective or not. I'd love car companies to share analysis -- does the driver slow down upon receiving a speed alert? Does he or she slow down only to speed up again within X period of time in a continuous alert/slow down/alert cycle? Does the driver disregard the alerts? Does the driver disable the alert system?! 

I'll also add this: From a safety perspective, it'd be great is carmakers could create an interior cell dead zone for vehicles. How many accidents are caused these days by talking, texting, etc., when driving? Of course, the carmakers want connectivity to the cloud so I realize this is but a pipe dream!

Re: Analytics in your car
  • 3/1/2012 6:21:39 AM
1 saves

Beth, intelligence can be incorporate in dash boards to alert drivers for a safe driving. For incorporating the intelligence, car manufactures can analyze the data collected through different sources to analyze the driving behavior and its impacts. So whenever they are crossing the limit, the system can send warning or alerts to drivers for a safe driving.

Re: Analytics in your car
  • 2/29/2012 11:16:55 PM

There would be a forum for that somewhere. Preventing car hacks would be high on the list for me as well.

Re: Analytics in your car
  • 2/29/2012 10:40:41 PM

Fear not, someone would come out with a shredder app to prevent incriminating data from being accessed from our car. Always know where the back door is!

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