Home What does Ford see for the car of the future?

What does Ford see for the car of the future?

Recently Ford announced the opening of their Research & Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California. To find out more about their plans for the car of the future, we sat down at the recent Women in Technology Summit with Jennifer Brace, Ford’s User Interface Supervisor at the Center.

So, what exactly is Ford doing in the Valley?

There are five main pillars we focus on in the lab, which are autonomous driving, user experience, connectivity and connected technologies, Internet of Things, and then big data analysis. Right now we have cross-functional labs with about 120 people, and it’s continuing to grow. And we have this great microcosm here of all these great groups that are on our main campus back in Dearborn, but all under one roof.

So what is really amazing about it and what I love is that we have people from all these different groups and we are able to sit near each other, and thus interact together and work on projects together. One of the things I like doing is walking over to our design guys and talking to them about a project in the middle of the day. Which, back in my old office in Michigan would have required me to go to a different building to talk to these guys. And then I had to get access to their super secret labs that were in the design studios!

Jennifer Brace, Ford's User Interface Supervisor in Palo Alto
Jennifer Brace, Ford’s User Interface Supervisor in Palo Alto

What is also different out here is we can develop our own culture. There are few of us like me that are from Dearborn and my midwest accent sticks out here like a sore thumb. But for the most part, we have hired people from the area or even from across the country, but not necessarily with automotive experience. We are 20-25% people who have been with Ford and the rest are new hires that bring a breadth of experience from working in the industry out here.

So your experience is in user interfaces. That’s a pretty fascinating place to be these days.

It’s really interesting, and it’s actually more interesting outside the vehicle than it is inside the vehicle because it moves so much faster in consumer electronics. So I actually watch that a lot more closely than other automotive companies because I think what people are seeing outside the car is what they are going to start to expect inside the car. So for example, if they are using gestures outside the car to controls doors and lights, they are going to expect that inside the car as well.

And if you read reviews in car magazines, a bane of consumers is often that interface.

The underlying theme is that we have to be nimble, we have to be upgradeable…even transferrable. If you love your device outside the vehicle you should be able to use it inside your vehicle. However, what we need to be more cognizant of is the safety aspect, because when you are in a vehicle that has to be your number one focus. So we are constantly trying to find that line of bringing people the technologies they want but bringing it in a way that is safe.


So how to you approach the fact that cars are upgraded over years, and consumer tech sometimes over months?

We have to follow what they are doing outside the car industry, so over-the-air updates, and automatically sending people software so their products are better and give them new features. I think Tesla has done a really good job of this, where a customer can go out to their car the next morning and they have a new feature that they are happy to see. I think we need to make it as seamless as possible. It’s what our phones do, and what people expect. We can’t make them go back to the dealership and make it inconvenient in order to get updates or upgrades to make them feel their car is still up to date with technology.

Now, with the Internet of Things, it’s also now about connecting to the world around the car.

The way I see it is we need to be another node in this connected world that people live in. Their home is a node, their phone is a node, their car is a node, and it’s important for us to tap into that to connect information and control and command.

Do we need to lead it? Are we going to be the people developing something new for your house? No, but there is no reason why we can’t develop an app, so, for example, we are talking about an app that connects to Alexa. So enabling the technologies that are already taking off in this space and finding a way to let the vehicle just be another node that can get access to those.

You mentioned Alexa, and we are starting to see voice as a UI element. How much are you looking at non-touch interfaces like voice, machine learning, or AR?

So we are looking at all of those, and voice is becoming more and more important as things are getting more complex as people are driving, and voice is a great way to do that. But some of the challenges that come with that is cars are a noisy environment, road noise, and sometimes you have kids or people in there with you.

But because we are seeing this technology being used widely outside the vehicle, there are advances that are going on constantly that are making things better and better, and that’s why updates are so important. If we just give you what we have today that will not be enough, and we understand. And we will continue to get better with our product cycles, but we can never beat folks in that environment because our testing requirements are so much more stringent than what it takes to throw an app out there.

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