At the Consumer Electronics Show which took place in Las Vegas on January 6-9, the Ford Motor Company stressed its intention to continue working on its ‘Smart Mobility’ initiative – a series of projects, one of which is for a driverless car.

Big Data and Smart Mobility the 2015 goals for Auto Manufacturers

In a clear sign that self-driving cars are no longer a ‘pie in the sky’ idea but and may soon actually be on the market, Google recently announced the latest incarnation of its Google Car, which is currently the most advanced of all the various manufacturers’ models under development. This latest version from the Google X Labs is said to have travelled 800,000 kilometres to date without ever having an accident. It is scheduled to take to the public roads in California this year.

However, autonomous connected cars are no longer the exclusive province of a few specialised information and communication technology companies. Many of the traditional automakers are now also launching programmes to develop vehicles along similar lines.  Among these, Ford representatives at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) highlighted what the company is currently doing in this direction.  Ford CTO Raj Nair predicted that an automaker would introduce a self-driving vehicle in some parts of the world within the next five years. The key enablers for this are 1) smart software development and 2) improved sensor capabilities in cars, he pointed out. In order to develop new smart vehicle functionality, Ford is now looking to collect masses of relevant data.

The company is currently conducting a ‘Big Data Drive’ experiment in Detroit, collecting data from a range of sensors installed in the vehicles of Ford employees who agree to take part in the project.  Each sensor-equipped car can apparently capture 25 Gigabytes of data per hour, which Ford believes will enable the carmaker to provide its customers with such added conveniences as assistance in finding a parking space, based on GPS data.

In addition, Ford is working on a number of initiatives under its ‘Smart Mobility’ programme. Unveiled at CES, the programme has been launched at 25 locations worldwide. It is based on four basic trends which Ford reckons will be key to the future of the auto industry, listed by Ford CEO Mark Fields as “increasing urbanisation, and its constituent clogging of roads; a growing global middle class; air quality, or what you could call a lack thereof in many parts of the world; and finally, changing consumer sentiment, with shifts in the global economy, seeing for example that young people have different buying patterns from their parents.” Other experiments under the Smart Mobility initiative focus on car sharing in London and an Uber-like minibus service in New York.

In short, the real challenge seems to be how to design ‘smart’ mobility for the coming years. Self-driving cars are seen to be the most advanced area here, but the traditional manufacturers are also focusing on continuous data collection with a view to obtaining a better understanding of their customers and improving their overall driving experience, especially in congested urban areas. Progress towards completely autonomous vehicles is being made step by step, says Nair, but in the meantime Ford is concentrating on developing slightly less ambitious ‘assisted driving’ functionality.

By Romain Chapron