Ford: Solving the Internet's 'last inch' problem at 70 mph

K. Venkatesh Prasad, head Ford infotronics research and advanced engineering, sees the auto as a mashup where computing meets the car cabin. But how does he get there?

K. Venkatesh Prasad, head of Ford's infotronics research and advanced engineering team, sees the auto as one big mashup---where computing and the car cabin will meld together to create intelligence that will make a driver's life easier. The open ended question for Prasad is how to get there.

Ford has been working diligently to create a platform that will make in-cabin technology as big of a buying point as reliability, design and safety. However, the rules for this technology push are still being written. It's not easy to solve "the last inch" problem in a car cockpit where things like social networking, calls and other things on the Internet we take for granted come together at 70 miles per hour.

Fortunately, Prasad and his team at Ford realize the company doesn't have all the answers. Ford is partnering and recruiting students to cook up apps and new ways of thinking about automotive technology. Ford even sponsors a class at the University of Michigan to focus on "Fiesta-ware," technology for its soon-to-launch small car (right) that's banking heavily on technology as a selling point.

Andrew Nusca and I sat down with a chat with Prasad to talk IT, strategy, autos and solving that pesky last inch problem in car cabins.

Here are some of the highlights from our conversation:

Ford's grand plan: Prasad noted that the automaker is looking to use technology as a differentiator for the company. Ford also realizes that it can't control all the technology in the cabin. Instead, Ford is looking to develop a platform with application programming interfaces (APIs) that can bring partners into the car. This approach means that Ford's platforms have to be open yet implemented in a way that adds intelligence to the driving experience instead of being a distraction. Prasad said the bottom line aim is for Ford to make the minutes we spend commuting more productive. "Our focus really is on trying to embrace the notion to reduce the number of steps to do the obvious,” said Prasad.

The nuts and bolts of Ford's emerging technology platform: Prasad said that Ford controls the middleware and user interface. For instance, Microsoft powers the operating system of Ford's Sync. There's a Freescale chip behind the system. Nuance is the voice recognition software. After that, Ford's platform takes the lead. In the future, apps will be attached to the in-cabin experience. Why the focus on the interface and middleware? Prasad said that's where Ford can add the most value. "Ford is not going to be known for its operating system. No one is going to come and ask, 'Gee, what operating system do you have?'" said Prasad. Indeed, Prasad likened Ford's role similar to what Apple does. Consumers don't focus on the Intel chips inside a MacBook Air. It's all about the design, interface and experience. Add it up and Ford has three programmable screens in the car. Meanwhile, Ford is looking to recruit developers and build an ecosystem around its platform. If Ford's vision plays out it will have technology mashups on wheels.

Use cases: Prasad had a bunch of uses for Ford's technology vision. Prasad talked a lot about social networking, vehicle intelligence so you'd get some history at each stop sign about the neighborhood, accidents and tourist information. Perhaps a driver could listen in on some pals chatting. His friends would know he couldn't talk much because they could see he was in the car. One of the more interesting uses of all this technology would be cars that are continuously sending information to the cloud. For instance, Prasad painted a scenario where Ford could aggregate information as customers turned on wipers and fog lights. That data aggregated could provide a warning to other Ford drivers that visibility was about to get bad. "Every vehicle will start expressing itself," explained Prasad. "There is the crowdsourcing of people, but the crowdsourcing of machines hasn't really happened yet."

Culture and Ford's tech DNA: Prasad noted that the automaker doesn't have all the answers. It is reaching out to students at the University of Michigan to help create applications for the Ford Fiesta, which will be driven across country to test the software. Ford is "making a small car a big experience...a big tech experience,” said Prasad. The University of Michigan course revolves around building out Ford's platform and source code. Students get guidelines for security and other key items and bring their best ideas forward. "The course is build around programming to the Fiesta," said Prasad, who noted Ford dubs its software "Fiestaware." What was obvious in our chat is that Ford is working diligently to come up with the rules of engagement and the best way to build this platform out is to bring in outside perspective. It's also a nice demographic play for Ford if it can reach out to college campuses, recruit developers and land a few lifetime customers. In many respects, Ford's strategy is similar to Apple's. Build the brand, land customers early and build an emotional attachment. “It’s not that Silicon Valley hasn’t done this before, but they haven’t done this in the rapid contextual dynamics that we have," said Prasad.

The 70 miles per hour challenge: Ford "is solving the last inch problem at 70 miles per hour," said Prasad (right). Here's what that term means exactly. Apple, Google and other technology players have solved the Internet when we're standing still. Everyone can navigate the Web and pull down just about any data nugget they want. In a car, the interface challenges are very different. There are safety concerns, limitations to be considered and processes that need to be rethought. This last inch conundrum requires the car and interface to make some inferences. If you're asking about a recipe, the software will need to fill in some gaps in your thinking---after all it's not like you're clicking for anything---and may be able to email the ingredients needed for dinner to your phone. The Internet at 70 mph is more dynamic and requires more real-time reaction. Prasad noted that the semantic Web comes into play a lot more in a car than on the PC. Simply put, Ford wants its autos to be "contextually aware." Prasad added that Ford is aiming for the "right technology at the right time in the right context."

Cloud computing's role: Prasad throughout our conversation referred to the cloud. In his view, autos would pluck down pertinent information and send data points back. Through this give and take, you'd get intelligence. The one hang-up I had was whether these data points would travel through the public Internet or some Ford data warehouse. Prasad acknowledged that Ford didn't "quite know the rules of the game yet," but recognized the power of the democratization of data. In the end, Ford will probably wind up filtering (with customer selection) what data is public and private. As a driver, I would want information set for public or private consumption based on context. If I drive in a ditch I would want people to know where to find me. Otherwise, I may not want to broadcast my location.

Future business models: Given Ford has three programmable screens and is developing a technology ecosystem, the business model possibilities need to be explored. Prasad said "the revenue side has a gamut of possibilities." None of these revenue models were hammered out, but you could see Ford getting a revenue share from apps, selling services and other opportunities from in-vehicle mashups. "We’re not limiting us to any one (business model)," said Prasad. Alternative revenue models aside, Prasad said job one for Ford is selling cars.

The emerging customer relationship: As Prasad talked, it became clear that Ford will eventually have a different relationship with its customers. Let's face it: Consumers have a less personal relationship with automakers than they do with a company with more touch points like Apple or Microsoft. "The focus is on the vehicle relationship," said Prasad. "What does it do to simplify your life?" The real vibe Ford wants to create is a bunch of customers saying, "this car is so cool that it gets me what I want when I want it."

Tech support: Andrew asked Prasad about technical support. What happens when all of this in-cabin technology needs fixing? Prasad outlined a multi-front effort. For starters, Ford has a partnership with Best Buy's Geek Squad for Sync issues and things like Bluetooth problems. There is also support at Ford dealerships. In addition, there are questions about how Ford's app strategy will play out. Will it keep tight control over in-cabin apps like Apple or go for an open approach like Android? Prasad said there will likely be two classes of apps. First there are the apps at dealerships covering critical things like email and phone service. Then there's a "sandbox space" that may include other apps. And then there's the future proofing issue. Vehicles are built to last 10 years or 150,000 miles, but software developments may outpace hardware. Prasad said Ford will have to account for more software upgrade cycles, but did add that "future proofing has no clear-cut solution."

Safety: We raised the obligatory safety question as many ZDNet and Smart Planet readers have noted concerns about distracted drivers. Prasad said that these technologies can be turned off. Meanwhile, he argued that if the technology vision is executed right that there should be a reduction in driving distractions. The case Prasad and Ford have to make: There's a difference between in-car intelligence and distractions---especially since the auto is becoming a "large human interface." We’re trying to make sure the vehicle experience is as big as it can be. What does it do to simplify my life without compromising safety?" said Prasad.

Related: Ford advocates tech-fueled energy efficiency program for dealers

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