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Michigan Leading the Mobility Revolution

By James Amend 

Automakers are conducting an unprecedented technology harvest, scouring the globe for the latest breakthroughs to prepare their organizations for a revolution in personal mobility.

And make no mistake, industry leaders say, the day when autonomous cars and trucks begin plying the nation’s roadways — or when people choose to borrow, share or rent a vehicle instead of owning it — is just around the corner.

Ford recently announced its intent to have a high-volume, fully autonomous SAE level 4-capable vehicle in commercial operation by 2021 in a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service.

Ford Motor Co.’s fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid research vehicle on the streets of Dearborn. Ford has been researching autonomous vehicles for more than a decade and currently tests fully autonomous vehicles in Michigan, Arizona and California.

“In the history of technology, we have been surprised often by the speed of which it matures and autonomous vehicles will be another example of that,” said Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford Motor Co. “What I don’t want to do is leave the impression that getting there is going to be easy, because it won’t be.”

To meet this unprecedented change, the industry must break away from a century old business model. Instead of designing and engineering new technologies almost entirely in-house, automakers will have to collaborate more closely with traditional suppliers, forge partnerships outside of automotive and build entirely new units within their companies focused on future modes of transportation.

Ford has already begun real-world testing of autonomous vehicles with exercises in California, Arizona and Michigan. The company expects by the next decade it will be selling cars and trucks that operate without a steering wheel, throttle or brake pedal.

“I am very optimistic that the (Ford) target of 2021 is very achievable and we’re committed to it,” Washington added.

Automakers are conducting an unprecedented technology harvest, scouring the globe for the latest breakthroughs to prepare their organizations for a revolution in personal mobilitytion of alternative fuel.

A group of Ford Motor Co. engineers work on a phone-as-car go app. When a passenger gets into a ride sharing car, he or she taps a mobile device that automatically opens an app interface giving him or her control of the radio and climate. Eventually, any controllable feature, like the passenger seat, could be added.

The real-world testing is part of Ford Smart Mobility, a plan the 113-year-old automaker expects will put it on the leading edge of autonomous vehicle technology, connectivity, mobility, customer experience, and data and analytics. The Ford plan includes strategic investments in technology companies — City Maps, Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC, SAIPS and Velodyne — meant to deepen the automaker’s expertise in emerging technologies, such as computer vision, machine learning, artificial intelligence and high-resolution 3-D mapping.

Much of Ford’s work on future mobility falls under the direction of Smart Mobility CEO Rajendra “Raj” Rao. A transformation agent, Rao previously built out the digital prowess of companies such as IGATE Capital, Brunswick Corp. and 3M. Rao underscores the gravity of future mobility work at Ford by calling the opportunity to lead Smart Mobility a “culmination” of his career.

Other automakers are taking similar steps. General Motors has partnered with a pair of San Francisco-based companies, Lyft and Cruise Automation, to speed development of its ride-sharing and autonomous driving initiatives. The company also launched its own personal mobility service, Maven, in January.

FCA US LLC has leapt into autonomous research through a partnership with Google, arguably one of the world’s leading technology companies. The unlikely duo has cloaked their work in secrecy for competitive reasons, but it reportedly consists of outfitting 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans with Google’s autonomous vehicle technology.

“What develops from here, we’ll see,” FCA CEO Sergio Marchionne told journalists in Windsor recently.

Volkswagen, which is remaking its business after a damaging emissions-cheating scandal, hired Johann Jungwirth away from Apple to lead its digitization efforts as the German automaker stretches into autonomous vehicles and the mobility services of ride-hailing and car-sharing.

Jungwirth recently disclosed plans for a standalone brand at VW entirely devoted to urban mobility services.

At Toyota Motor Co., professors and scholars are encouraged to pursue research in green energy technology to explore the next generation of alternative fuel.

At Toyota Motor Co., professors and scholars are encouraged to pursue research in green energy technology to explore the next generation of alternative fuel.

Toyota has put its autonomous vehicle development under the auspices of Gill Pratt, a robotics genius who previously led the U.S. Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency centered on driverless cars and machine learning. Pratt is CEO of the Toyota Research Institute, an Ann Arbor hub for the Japanese automaker tasked with developing artificial intelligence systems, so its cars can someday learn the intricacies of driving.

But Pratt said even an engineering giant such as Toyota must go outside its organization to achieve unquestionably safe driverless cars.

“Coopetition is actually the goal here,” he said. “Our great hope is for constructive competition and also collaboration between all the car manufacturers, the IT companies, different governments and hardware manufacturers.”

James Amend is a senior editor at WardsAuto in Southfield.