CES 2018: When It Comes to Autonomous Vehicles, Ford Thinks Beyond “Disruption”

Metropolis talked to Jessica Robinson, the mobility company’s director of city solutions, about how she’s paving the way for the future of transit.

FORD CES autonomous vehicles
The Ford booth at CES focused on the urban design and quality-of-life impact of autonomous vehicles (AV). It also highlighted the Detroit company’s foray into delivery services via partnerships with Domino’s Pizza and Postmates. Courtesy Ford

Metropolis Magazine visited CES this year—find our latest coverage of smart cities, 3D printing, VR, and more, here.

As autonomous vehicles (AVs) make their first tentative appearances on the road, no car manufacturer (or rather, as they’re increasingly known, “mobility company”) has been striving harder than the Ford Motor Company to emphasize this technology’s potential impact on cities, streetscapes, and society at large.

At CES, Ford’s CEO delivered an hour-long keynote (and penned this Medium article) on the challenges and opportunities that lay ahead. The company’s vision for a safer, more efficient transportation network (dubbed “The Living Street”) was the centerpiece of Ford’s CES booth as well: a sweeping video wall detailed scenarios where bikes, mass transit, and driverless cars worked together to help residents get where they needed to go. In one scenario, a vehicle even detected its driver was having a medical emergency and helped call for aid.

Ford aims to supply the vehicles as well as the digital connective tissue for this futuristic multi-modal system. At CES, the company also announced it was developing a Transportation Mobility Cloud (TMC), essentially an urban operating system that will help coordinate the many devices, vehicles, and individual passengers in smart cities.

FORD CES autonomous vehicles
Ford CEO Jim Hackett laid out the company’s vision for The Living Street during a keynote address. Courtesy Ford

The advent of driverless cars is just around the corner: by 2021, Ford plans to deliver level-four AVs. (Level-four means the vehicle is nearly fully autonomous, with level-five requiring no human attention to operate.) The company is taking proactive measures to ensure these technologies are smoothly integrated into the real world. At CES, Metropolis sat down with Jessica Robinson, Ford’s director of city solutions, to understand what she’s doing to pave the way for The Living Street.

So how does the city solutions department fit into the broader Ford Motor Company? What do you hope to achieve?

Ford City Solutions is a group that we set up specifically to bring human-centered design to cities, understand how mayors and other elected officials are thinking about their cities, how public transit agencies are thinking about their futures, and how are citizens thinking about what we want the places we call home to look like, feel like, and be like, in the future.

My team and I spend a lot of time going out and doing a lot of listening, asking a lot of questions to understand how some of the technologies such as self-driving vehicles might look like, city by city.

That sounds just like a listening tour, but how would your efforts affect the products that Ford would deliver?

Listening tour is a good way to describe it. We feel strongly, whether it’s something we build or a new service that we launch with a partner, [that] taking a disruptive approach is not the right thing to do. We might work with a product team to set up a feedback loop [with] the things that we’re hearing. We also might bring information about what Ford is developing into those conversations so cities have a better understanding of what’s happening.

So something like, what’s the timeline for self-driving vehicles? Knowing that will let a city planner who is thinking about conduction in their city have a better sense of what comes next.

Looking at the immediate future, Ford just announced a partnership with Domino’s Pizza and Postmates. While many details of these partnerships have yet to be determined, the idea is that a Ford AV will become a food delivery vehicle. Before fully autonomous vehicles arrive, will this technology be used to change how companies such as these operate?

Yes, what we’re really starting to understand is, as the technology matures and becomes production-ready, what are the underlying business models for Ford and, potentially, with our partners? We believe that these vehicles will be deployed in the early years in services type of systems. It could be moving people around but it could also be moving goods around. So that’s what we’re really trying to test and learn about.

The point is not to test the self-driving technology, [such as] the LIDAR and other things, but it’s the user interaction with those vehicles. How will a pedestrian recognize the self-driving vehicle? We have a light bar in the vehicle that is testing some different flashes and patterns. Will users understand the flashing colors? And in this case, what is it actually like to push a button and enter a code on the side of a car and have your pizza delivered?

FORD CES autonomous vehicles
Ford’s partnership with Domino’s Pizza and Postmates was announced during CES. Courtesy Ford

Does this relate to the broader idea of cars slowly becoming a transportation service, not a transportation product?

That’s part of what we announced here at CES: the launch of a transportation service platform [the Transportation Mobility Cloud] that will start to build on some of those models. The cloud that we’re building is a place where different connected services, connected vehicles, and city data can actually be shared to unlock new insights, new ease of moving around as you transfer from one [service] to the other, and potentially new business where you can actually have different payment options.

At CES, I’ve been hearing that AV fleets—where users will share rides—will happen a lot sooner than individually-owned or operated AVs. While it has drivers, the Ford-owned mass-transit start-up Chariot is a contemporary example of just such a fleet. How do fleet services figure into your conversations with cities and transportation officials?

Chariot is one of the ways we’re thinking about how the way we move changes. And what we at Ford like about micro-transit, which is the broader industry term for the type of service Chariot runs, [is that] we have the efficiency of having multiple people together sharing a ride in roughly the footprint of a passenger sedan. Cities really like that. The other benefit is Chariot today runs on crowdsource roots. So Chariot knows that there is demand from the beginning for that service and, in many cases, a service like Chariot can respond more quickly to changes in a city. If a new neighborhood starts to have development or a company relocates, they can start a new route, versus waiting and putting in a new transit or train line. It can fill in and really complement the existing public transit network.

These vehicles will also offer a geo-fenced area [i.e. their operation can easily be contained to certain areas] versus a level-five AV which is truly capable of operating anywhere, anytime. Cities are a really important part of that discussion because that’s where [the AVs] are really operating. So again, our group, we work with the folks that are building the vehicles to tell cities how to prepare [for] it.

Looking at Ford’s booth, it’s remarkable how Ford is forefronting the streetscape and urban life. I don’t want to extrapolate this too much, but it seems like you want to emphasize the quality of life and the urban impact more than, for instance, the sexiness of the car itself. If cars become more of a service, will the automotive industry increasingly emphasize cars’ benefits to the city?

The way that Ford is thinking about it is: smart vehicles in a smart world. So it’s not one or the other, it’s both. You’re right that the vehicle is not front and center here. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t focus on good design, safe design, and user experience in the vehicle. Perhaps Chariot is a good example. When you’re sharing a van, do we want to be on a bench seat together? Or do we want our own little buckets? Those are very important design choices.

You can find our latest coverage of CES 2018 here.

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