Ford Shifts into Digitalization High Gear with Ken Washington

Leading Modernization and Disruption in the Automobile Industry through Digital Transformation and a key partnership with Google

Published in Issue 6 | April 2021

One-on-one Exclusive Interview with Ken Washington

Ford Motor Company’s Chief Technology Officer Ken Washington is part of the enterprise leadership team that leads Ford’s global research organization, overseeing the development and implementation of the company’s technology strategy. His responsibilities include: Ford’s next generation vehicle electrical architectures; sensing and computing stacks; energy, propulsion, and sustainability; advanced materials and manufacturing; and, controls and automated systems. He also leads Ford’s STEM and University research programs.

Ford’s CTO Washington sits down with InterGlobix Magazine Editor-in-Chief Jasmine Bedi to discuss some of Ford’s disruptive key digital transformation initiatives, with a key focus on their latest partnership with Google.

Learning about Team UpShift, can you share more about the company’s plan for reinvention, modernization and disruption?

The next generation of Ford’s vehicle electrical architectures is evident in Team Upshift, a collaboration between Ford Motor Company and Google. Ford and Google recently made waves with this unique autotech tie-up that will go beyond connected vehicle innovations by supercharging the automaker’s business transformation. Team Upshift will bring together talent from Ford and Google to focus on Ford’s most pressing opportunities. These teams will leverage Google’s cloud services and software and AI expertise with the goals of creating new and better ways of doing business—from factory floors to dealerships—while introducing distinctive connected vehicle experiences that stand out from increasingly commoditized features. This is only the latest step in a bigger journey the iconic car manufacturer is on to modernize everything about their operations and disrupt itself and mobility more broadly—all with Henry Ford’s pioneering spirt that opened the highways to all mankind 117 years ago. And, this push into a new era of transportation is gaining even more traction with customers, while Wall Street takes notice, like when a major business publication called Ford “an unlikely tech darling” after the Google announcement.

How will Ford make the revolutionary transformation from an automaker to “unlikely tech darling”?

Ford’s path forward in the technology space became even more clear after the most recent earnings call in February, when the company promised $7 billion toward automated vehicles and another $22 billion through 2025 in support of its commitment to lead the electrification revolution. What’s important is not those figures but what they represent—the realization that a vehicle is not just the physical thing to get customers from point A to point B, but an extension of their digital lives, breakthrough products and technologies, built on top of a re-imagined digital platform. Ford is hard at work building out that digital platform today. In the future our customers will continue to have great vehicle products, and those products will be accompanied by an ongoing stream of software enabled services and experiences to make their lives easier, more enjoyable, and safer. A few examples include flexible charging services for our electric vehicle customers and increasingly capable automation to improve the driving experience for retail and commercial customers. Connected vehicle technologies and data will become the new oil that helps synch today with tomorrow. Today’s Fords are wirelessly connected to the Internet to operate more like smartphones with features such as real-time—even predictive—navigation. Being connected means new features can be uploaded to the vehicle over-the-air (or OTA) to bring an endless stream of new experiences and valuable services to our customers. OTA and other connectivity enabled innovations are what people have come to expect in other parts of their digital lives. This push into connected vehicles, which gets less attention than EVs or AVs, is a massive change that is already underway. Right now, 100 percent of Ford vehicles are rolling off the assembly lines in the United States and Europe as connected vehicles through embedded modems that are as much a manufactured good as they are platforms for digital services and experiences.

One of the most exciting aspects of a connected vehicle is also perhaps the most illustrative of the concept. In the old days, technologically speaking (i.e., a year ago), most legacy auto manufacturers would build a car and then track aggregated maintenance records over the life cycle of the car to then iterate the design of the next version of that car. In this way, the design cycle of a single make took several years and had a distinct beginning and a definite end.

Can you take us on Ford’s journey to modernize everything?

The design cycle of a connected vehicle is now a continuous, ongoing process without a beginning or an end, and it moves a lot faster than ever before without showing any sign of slowing. As soon as a connected Ford car is driven off the lot, aggregated and de-identifiable data about the machine and driving patterns starts to get fed back to engineers. When problems and patterns arise, Ford can wirelessly deliver software updates often while owners are sleeping, sparing customers a trip to the repair shop to correct problems as well as updating operating systems.

There’s an old saying that vehicles depreciate quite a bit the moment their driven off dealer lots. With advanced wireless software upgrades, we will change some of that dynamic by making vehicles better over time, while creating a more meaningful and regular relationship with customers to build loyalty. The inventory of possibilities with connected Ford vehicles is bounded only by our imaginations, in a very analogous way that smart phones have an essentially unlimited number of apps that can be loaded onto them to make them more interesting and valuable.

The technology to enable this degree of extendibility goes far beyond introducing modems into vehicles. Staying with the smart phone analogy, the magic is not solely attributed to their connected status. There is an entire platfo class="pb-n-20px"rm behind smart phones built around a carefully architected end-to-end digital network ecosystem. This ecosystem connects smart phones to massive supercomputers in the cloud, where much of the magic happens. The plumbing in-between is designed to ensure that information flows back and forth smartly and efficiently as needed to unlock the desired experiences.

This push into connected vehicles, which gets less attention than EVs or AVs, is a massive change that is already underway. Right now, 100 percent of Ford vehicles are rolling off the assembly lines in the United States and Europe as connected vehicles through embedded modems that are as much a manufactured good as they are platforms for digital services and experiences.

Ford has implemented our own version of this type of ecosystem. It’s best thought of as the operating system for delivering apps and experiences. This is a true game changer, giving Ford a new capability to develop a wide array of new experiences and features that can be wirelessly delivered to keep customers current. Although, much of this technology is hidden behind the scenes, its impact is seen on the first few vehicles built on top of this system, the 2021 F-150 pickup and the Mustang Mach-E all-electric SUV. From now on, Ford will be able to upgrade a 2021 F-150 pickup or Mustang Mach-E all-electric SUV with Ford Co-Pilot 360 hands-free driving without it ever leaving the customer’s garage. Additionally, that hands-free driving experience also can be improved over time without the customer having to do anything.

Ford is now expanding this architecture to open even more vehicles, including more sophisticated computing and processing both in the vehicle and in the cloud–again, much like smart phones operate. Because the connected cars are now collecting valuable and massive amounts of data, that data can be used to train machine learning algorithms to make our cars smarter over time. It’s not just the cars that will get smarter; because engineers, manufacturing team, dealers, mechanics and sales teams will all benefit from having smart applications at their fingertips.