The Interview: Dr Ken Washington, VP of research and advanced engineering, Ford

5 Mar 2015

Dr Ken Washington, VP of research and advanced engineering, Ford Motor Company

The technology is advancing at such a rate that self-driving cars will be possible in the next 10 years, Dr Ken Washington, VP of research and advanced engineering at Ford told

“I’m not making any predictions but the technology will be mature enough to make it possible in the next 10 years,” Washington said.

At Mobile World Congress in Barcelona this week, Ford revealed the latest slew of innovations as part of its Smart Mobility strategy, including new electric bicycles that can be folded and stowed in cars, like the Ford Focus Electric.

The car giant has developed two bicycles, which include the Mode: Me, a bike that weighs just 13kg and the Mode: Pro, which can carry goods on a carrier and which weighs just 20kg.

Both vehicles can go at a maximum speed of 40km/h (25m/ph), charge smartphones on the go, and carry many of the features and sensors that we’ve come to expect in electric vehicles. The features include sensors that warn you if a vehicle is too close and haptic sensors in the handlebars that vibrate when you have a vehicle too close or the GPS on your phone is telling you to make the next turn.

Ford has developed the Mode: Link app that enables route planning and gives up health and fitness, route planning and health and fitness diagnostics.

Smarter mobility is the driving force

“Smart Mobility is our plan to use innovation to take solutions and products to the next level making use of mobility, autonomous vehicles and connectivity, as well as big data to enable customers to have better experiences.”

Washington admitted the big data aspects of motoring presents vehicle manufacturers with a potential gold mine, but this comes with serious responsibility.

“That’s an accurate assessment. We realised that this was the right time to put our Smart Mobility strategy together. We quickly concluded that an understanding of big data and its potential is so large that it has lots of risks and we have to treat it very seriously,” said Washington, who previously drove big data strategies at Lockheed-Martin, where he was chief privacy officer.

“It’s not our data, it’s the customer’s data and it’s our responsibility to protect that data and access what we have permission to access. Our principle is that we will use big data wisely in order to give value back to the driver.

“We are really focused on ensuring that our practices are industry standard and also that we are transparent about what we are doing with the data.”

Megacities of the future

A key driver of Ford’s strategy is the rapid growth of the middle classes around the world and it is examining new ways of enabling people who aspire to owning a vehicle to do so.

Ford predicts there are currently 28 megacities in the world where 10m people live and that by 2030 this will have grown to 41 megacities. This creates a raft of social and economic problems ranging from congestion which is currently costing €100bn a year in Europe in terms of productivity, but also environmental factors like air quality, fuel usage and pollution.

“We did an experiment in India with Ford Credit where two people can come together and share a car. We have a car sharing model in alpha prototype mode in London where people are using an app and can demand the use of the vehicle at a certain time and arrange a drop off. So we are learning all about new modes of usage.

“In Germany car-sharing has been quite successful where we use an app to reserve and unlock a car using a smartphone. We are learning a lot by experimenting with alternative mobility types.

“Also, vehicle-to-vehicle communications is going to open up lots of new opportunities for us. But to do that at scale all vehicles – regardless of manufacturer – need to be able to communicate. The entire industry is working on establishing these standards and we are participating in that.

“For example in Germany we are working on a vehicle-to-infrastructure prototype where cars can communicate with stop lights.

“Learning how to do this will be a big part of the future.

“In the near-term autonomous vehicles have to learn how to stand on their own and we are establishing the capability in vehicles to sense their environment using technologies like LiDAR and having data fused to understand what the environment looks like so that people can be transported safely and at the same time enjoy a good drive.”

Fun to drive, fun to ride

On the subject of autonomous versus semi-autonomous Washington said the technology is already here, but the overarching industry standards are not.

“Our position on autonomous is that it and semi-autonomous driving are here today and that will continue to improve.

“The technologies are there where the capabilities that give you driver assistance, keep you in lane, detect pedestrians active city stop if a sensor detects a vehicle has stopped in front of you at 50km/h.

“Our strategy is to assist you in being a safer and better driver, and we will continue to do that.

“In parallel with that we are developing fully autonomous capabilities to take the driver out of the loop. But the car needs to be capable enough. An unanswered question is that if the driver needs to get back in the loop and that’s ongoing.

“In terms of human progress, every survey says that if we had it people would want it.”

But does he think we will enter a time where all cars will be autonomous. “We think that autonomous vehicles will coexist with cars you drive. Fun to drive and fun to ride is our vision for the future.

“We were really focused on taking the human fully out of the loop, but not for the human to be out of the car. That will be possible in the right environmental conditions, policies and non-technical issues such as where you operate and what kind of insurance policies will exist.

“These complex non-technical issues have to be worked out. In the right conditions we think autonomous vehicles will be possible. I’m not making predictions but the technology will certainly be mature enough to make it possible in the next 10 years.”

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