Ford CEO Fields on autonomous cars, big data, Tesla

Ford CEO Mark Fields talks about the automaker's aim to be a mobility company, valuing data, robotic cars and what a large company can learn from Tesla's success.

NEW YORK -- Ford is embarking on an experiment binge around the world as it aims to become a mobility company and harness all the data it can to keep in front of the auto pack. CEO Mark Fields is betting that data science, curiosity, and a passion for the customer experience will make those experiments pay off.

Ford's priorities -- quality, fuel efficiency, safety and smart technology -- are clear. How analytics and data enable Ford to reach those priorities is a bit fuzzy for now. But Fields doesn't expect that condition to last forever. "We need to be a mobility company and an auto company," said Fields, speaking to reporters Tuesday night ahead of the New York Auto Show.

At the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Fields outlined a series of data experiments and a plan to make Ford into an information services company. The experiments have just started and cover everything from parking to e-bikes. As for the monetization, these experiments are a work in progress. But as Ford explores ride sharing trends perhaps Ford Credit can come up with a fractional share financing system.

Here's a look at the key takeaways from Fields' chat on Tuesday:

Autonomous vehicles.

No conversation with an auto exec can go by without a question about autonomous vehicles. Google has popularized the notion of robotic cars with various experiments and a bevy of automakers have initiatives on the drawing board. Fields, who noted that Ford has its own autonomous cars in research settings, has a more nuanced view of the idea of robotic cars. "People are throwing around terms about autonomous vehicles pretty freely," said Fields.

Fields put the spectrum of autonomous vehicles in a few levels. The first level is what's common today. Think about adaptive cruise control and safety features used to avoid accidents. Level 4 is the notion that you'd press a button, hop in a car, fall asleep and magically wind up at grandma's house. That level 4 scenario could take 20 years or more. "When you think about it we have a lot of the building blocks for autonomous vehicles, but there's a rate and flow of development that'll determine how quickly that comes along," said Fields.

See: CNET Car Tech | Ford's big data experiments: Can it transform the company?

Consider the gating factors to autonomous vehicles. There are industry standards, regulations that usually trail innovation and economics. "For Ford it's not about being first in market or having a marketing claim. We want to make it accessible to everyone," said Fields.

And for autonomous vehicles to become the norm, there are a few technical issues. Surely, camera technology is moving fast as are the algorithms and software that would guide a vehicle. "Our view is that for full autonomy you'd need cameras, radar, sensors, rider systems, algorithms to coordinate data and compare it to 3D mapping dynamically," said Fields. "Whatever the timing is processing power would have to increase markedly." Fields said there will be limited settings where autonomous transport could work, but the utopian tech dream has a ways to go.

Nevertheless, Ford could benefit from autonomous vehicles in many ways. The company has a large fleet business for delivery services that are likely to go with autonomous vehicles. In addition, autonomous vehicles would rack up miles quickly and have to be replaced.

On the value of data.

Fields said that Ford's experiments can't be tied to an ROI equation, but his gut says that there's a payoff down the road. "I can't really judge those experiments by looking at a spreadsheet," says Fields. Indeed, he added that the value of data is going to change in the years to come. Ford's differentiation may come from data in experiments. Today, the most valuable data is customer contact information and vehicle data that can flag warranty issues. Fields' key takeaway: For all the talk about analytics and big data there are still information points that are driven more by curiosity than returns.

Fields' strategy. James Martin, CNET

What can you learn from Tesla?

"We can learn something from everyone and we never think a competitor is too small," said Fields. Tesla certainly isn't too small. Fields said Tesla has raised the awareness of electric vehicles and that's good. Ford can also learn from how Tesla interacts with its customers via technology.

But the biggest takeaway from Tesla is how to think like a startup. "Tesla is endemic of how startups think. We encourage everyone at Ford to think like a startup. You have to question tradition and don't take anything for granted. We hope to look at the industry through a different lens," said Fields.

One way Ford tries not to miss the curve is to have Thursday meetings where the top 20 senior leaders in the company go through the business. The first slide from each leader revolves around the business environment. "Every Thursday morning we're all looking at the business environment. It's a proactive, reinforcing process," said Fields.

How fast should technology be pushed on customers?

"There are limits on the ability to absorb technology," said Fields. He has been encouraging Ford's engineers and product marketing folks to think about what the customer experience should be before getting into the technology. Ford's approach to customer experience and technology is being revealed with the company's Lincoln concept vehicle at the New York Auto Show this week.

lincoln-concept.jpg

One key advance? A 30-way seat that contours to your body. When you drive, each leg has a different angle. "How do we give leg support in an environment like that? We provide individual adjustments for reach leg. That's one way of thinking about experience and you'll see things like that more and more from us," said Fields.

The future of dealers

Fields said the dealership of the future will look dramatically different than the model today. First, over-the-air updates will take care of a lot of work that is now performed at dealers. Things like new calibrations or entertainment system updates will happen just like an app update on your smartphone. That reality means fewer trips to the dealer. However, hardware issues will be addressed better. "Say you're approaching a dealer and there's a sensor that points out you have a brake problem. Your car could make an appointment. Information will make service a lot more efficient," said Fields. "I don't think the days of the dealership are going away any time soon."

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