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Innovation

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Your car is a computer.Well, actually it's something more like ten or twenty computers running more software than sent a man to the moon.

Your car is a computer.

Well, actually it's something more like ten or twenty computers running more software than sent a man to the moon. Computers run the engine, handle the braking, monitor and report on sensors all over the vehicle, even handle your in-car entertainment. And if Google’s autonomous vehicles (developed in conjunction with Stanford University) are anything to go by, you’re going to find in-car computers becoming increasingly important.

So it’s perhaps not surprising to learn that Ford is reinventing itself as a technology company. At Google IO the automotive giant talked about using Google's prediction services to understand the routes you're most likely to use in order to optimise performance and fuel economy (something increasingly important for hybrids and for electric vehicles). The company went into more details around its plans and its direction at the Future In Review 2011 conference a couple of weeks ago, where CTO Paul Mascarenas sat down for one of the event's signature conversations.

Ford has a very simple strategy to reconfigure the company, leveraging its global assets to reduce costs, and building on technology to differentiate itself and provide services to drivers and passengers. That means changing both the image of the brand and image of the company, defining it as a technology company as well as automotive. In-car computing is a big piece of this, using the technology built into the vehicle. Some of it is obvious, like audio and navigation, some of it hidden under the skin. Other parts link to the outside world, using technologies like Ford's Sync to connect to technology that is brought in by drivers and passengers. It goes beyond entertainment and communications, handling safety, and traffic management, as well as turning the car into a mobile medical platform. Mascarenas suggests that Ford needs to have as open an architecture as possible, supporting devices in a seamless way and at the same time making sure the technology offers value and is affordable.

Mascarenas points out that you need to start with a big picture vision, one of cars that don't crash. While that won't be delivered overnight, it's possible to significantly reduce this number with communication. It's not just car to device, it’s connecting car to infrastructure and car to cloud.

Part of what Ford is working towards is the dream of the autonomous car. Google's self-driving vehicles are just one example of this – and we've already got many of the pieces of the autonomous vehicle in today's cars, including self-parking and managed cruise-control, as well as the collision avoidance features in some of the high-end cars. It's easy to imagine packs of semi-autonomous vehicles running in special lanes, all linked together wirelessly and slipstreaming to save fuel. There needs to be some understanding of the societal implications of this – from privacy, to liability. It's going to be interesting to see how governmental and insurance interests approach the data that's going to be collected (or at the very least pass through the systems) by the car companies.

What cars need is cheap and easy wireless communication – something that lets them communicate with each other and with the world around them. Connecting cars to the cloud will be key in making sure they stay up to date for the ten years or so they'll be on the road, as well as providing a channel for connecting to your devices. That way software can be updated easily, and features added without needing to change the hardware in the car. All it needs is a simple set of relatively thin devices to handle UI and communications, and all the rest can be done on scalable computing resources in a data centre somewhere.

That does mean that the car manufacturer of the future will end up having to run cloud services for many many years – something that most haven't considered. While it'll probably mean initially leasing data centre capacity (like Ford is currently doing to a limited extent in its experimentation with Google services), it's not hard to predict massive Ford, GM and Toyota data centres sat alongside Apple's, Microsoft's and Google's in South Carolina swamps and on the banks of the chilly Columbia River.

Today's cars turn on with a key. Will tomorrow's need a username and password too?

Simon Bisson

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