Motor and ICT industries merge lanes, says Ford innovation chief

15 Oct 2013

The most frequent question Dr Pim van der Jagt gets asked is, when are we are really likely to see driverless vehicles hit our streets? “My standard answer is yes, you will see them. In reply to the next question, which is ‘when?’ I really I don’t know.” For van der Jagt, making these kind of technologies appear in our day-to-day lives is an all-consuming task.

Van der Jagt is managing director of the European Ford Research Centre in Aachen, Germany, and is responsible for all vehicle dynamics for Ford worldwide.

He said many of the attributes of driverless car technology are not far off. “We will soon be introducing a technology we call Traffic Jam Assist, where the car can take over from the driver if the car is in a traffic jam on the motorway and the car shifts gears, stops and drives until the traffic jam clears and the driver can take over again.

“It looks for pedestrians and fuses all the current sensors in the vehicle with steering, breaking and accelerating. This is a new development that will come really soon.”

Dr Pim Van der Jagt

Dr Pim Van der Jagt,
managing director of the European Ford Research Centre

Interest from insurance industry

Van der Jagt said that the ICT and motoring industry have been merging for some time now, with major advances in camera, sensor, mobile and in-car entertainment, and apps being the real fruit.

The current state of the art, he said, involves using cameras and radar to form a 360-degree “protective shield” around a car.

“The image processing capabilities of mono cameras in cars are accelerating at an unbelievable pace. We have managed to fuse cameras with radar and thermal to introduce systems like cruise control that can run via the camera. But this requires an enormous amount of functionality,” he said.

These systems are making an enormous difference and could have an impact on reducing insurance costs, he added. “The insurance industry is taking an enormous amount of interest in the work we are doing.”

He said feedback from the insurance industry in Europe is that the City Stop System Ford introduced in the 2010 Focus is making an impact, with a 15pc reduction in the severity of accidents and an overall 8pc reduction in accidents. The system only works at 30km/h speeds, yet future generations of the system will go to even higher speeds, he added.

A key breakthrough the car and communications technology industries are working on in terms of Wi-Fi and cellular is enabling cars to talk to each other, van der Jagt said.

“At the moment, if all cars could talk to each other and tell each other where each one is, then other cars can take action and almost eliminate the potential for accidents.”

However, such technologies are a long way off. “It can only be realised if we get 99.5pc penetration of the world’s vehicle fleet and that really is the issue.

“The whole industry is endeavoring to implement these systems in some shape from 2017 onwards. If we can achieve car-to-car communications it would be the equivalent of being able to look around the corners of buildings to identify threats that are invisible to the driver.”

Ford’s R&D spend

Ford spends up to US$4.9bn on R&D across the board, which van der Jagt said is largely around the development of next-generation vehicles. The entire R&D group spans 1,000 people between Aachen, and Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan.

Focusing on the near future, van der Jagt said a lot of the emphasis is on harnessing cellular 3G and 4G connectivity to connect cars with cloud computing systems and introduce voice-enabled apps.

Around 30pc of the typical value of a new car today is in its software and each car contains hundreds of thousands of electronic components and sensors.

“This is where we are leading the industry. We have a system called Sync that uses cellular and internet connectivity to use voice control and provide emergency assistance. Our in-car information and entertainment system is the result of a three-year development cycle with Microsoft.”

In explaining the innovation challenges the motor industry faces compared with the ICT industry, van der Jagt said: “When a car goes out of production, most of the technologies in it are at least eight years old. By comparison the mobile phone industry has a cycle time of typically six months before a new device comes out and for the app business, well, that is every three weeks.”

In terms of apps, Ford had embarked on a Ford App Developer Programme to create a technology called AppLink, and the first apps from Spotify, Aha, Glympse and Kaliki will debut in the Ford EcoSport and Fiesta by the end of the year.

“The idea is to allow drivers to voice control popular information and entertainment apps. The system will be introduced in over 1m vehicles in the US and Europe later this year.

“Our plan is to work with mobile app developers who already have existing apps that they can augment for in-car usage,” van der Jagt said.

A version of this article first appeared in the Sunday Times on 13 October

Self-driving car image via Shutterstock

John Kennedy is a journalist who served as editor of Silicon Republic for 17 years