Fast Forward With Don Butler, Ford's Connected Vehicles Chief

By Dan Costa Features PCmag

Ford has spent the last few years transforming itself from a car company into a technology and transportation company. Ford still wants to sell cars, but increasingly the company focuses on how those vehicles interact with city infrastructure, other vehicles, and the passengers themselves.

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One of the executives leading that imitative is Don Butler, Director of Connected Vehicles and Services at Ford. I spoke with Butler on the show floor at CES 2017 about the future of transportation, the environment, and Ford's unique strategy. A transcript and video of our discussion is below.

Dan Costa: Welcome to Fast Forward. I'm Dan Costa, editor-in-chief of PCMag.com, and we are on the CES show floor. This is a show where we have conversations about living in the future. I am here with Don Butler, director of connected vehicles and services with Ford. We are at the Ford booth, and we're going to talk about self-driving cars. We're going to talk about the future of cities and the future of transportation, and all those things interplay with one another. Don, thanks so much for taking the time here. Your title is director of connected vehicles and services. Most people don't think about Ford as a services company, but it's really fundamental to Ford's approach to transportation, right?

You're absolutely right, Dan. Our vision is that we want to make people's lives better by changing the way the world moves. In the past, that definition of making people's lives better was essentially affordable transportation. Going all the way back to the days of our founder, Henry Ford, and the Model T, the assembly line. It opened up the highways for all mankind. As we fast forward 113 years, obviously some of the dynamics have changed. Cities are becoming more congested. We're more concerned, obviously, about the environment and making sure that we can be compatible with what's happening regarding global warming. We're thinking about our business and our company not just as an automotive business, but as a mobility business as well.

That sense of mobility also has a sense of software and services related to being mobile. My title, Connected Vehicle and Services, speaks to the underlying technology regarding what it takes to connect a vehicle, what it takes to enable some of that capability, but also the services that we'll be delivering as a result of that. Moving from not just an ownership profile, but to users and shared models as well. Services absolutely are part of what we'll be about.

You were one of the first companies to look at transportation not just as a service, but as a platform. That you were going to build the cars, but you need to build an ecosystem around that that brought in lots of different partners. Sync was the beginning of that, and then as it's evolved, you've just been lining up more and more partners to expand what the platform can do. Talk about some of those new partners.

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You're right. That notion of platform is spot on because it's not the just single purpose, let me get from A to B. Certainly, we want to still do great hardware. We do great hardware. Things that are great to look at, great to sit in, and great to drive, but this notion of a platform as well. Sync is an ideal way of doing that because of number one; it recognizes that the smartphone has become essentially the way that we organize our lives, the way that we entertain ourselves, the way that we communicate, the way that we stay in touch. As a platform, it's ideally designed for that, particularly with AppLink, which is the linking technology that we have that would enable you to take advantage of the content, the applications that are on that smartphone, and it opens the door to developers as partners.

One of the partners that we're happy to work with and we're featuring at CES this year is Amazon. We are bringing the capability of Alexa into the vehicle, leveraging Sync AppLink as that platform and enabling people to, again, accomplish things more than just going from A to B. Accomplishing those other kinds of experiences that they'd like to have while they're moving.

What kind of experiences? What does bringing Alexa inside the car do for the consumer?

Imagine all the things that you could do at home with Alexa like checking the weather, checking your schedule, checking your calendar, adding to your shopping list. We spend, most of us, an inordinate amount of time either commuting or inside our vehicles, and why should you be restricted from engaging with that network, engaging with Alexa while you're inside the vehicle? You can check your contacts. You can check your calendar. You can add to your shopping list.

One of the interesting things we've done to integrate the vehicle-related aspects of that, you could say, for instance, "Alexa, what are some of the restaurants that are nearby?" Come back with a list. After you go through a couple of queries, you nail down the restaurant that you'd like to go to. All this was done through voice, by the way. That destination would immediately then be populated within our embedded navigation system onboard the vehicle which would then obviously take you there very seamlessly.

You don't have to build a voice interface. People are already familiar with Alexa. They've got the service. They've got the tools, but you've taken and expanded on it.

Exactly.

You've also been very aggressive in partnering with other hardware vendors. You've got a relationship with Toyota to help build out this platform as well. That's something a lot of car companies wouldn't do.

If we think about the technology space and we think about what makes sense, open platforms, open source platforms, things that make the common underlying technology just more accessible and more available, it's not a point of differentiation. The differentiation is in the experience that you deliver. It's in the look and feel that's associated with your particular vehicle, your particular brand. Because we wanted to build this ecosystem, we open sourced AppLink, which is our linking technology, and it's called Smart Device Link. Smart Device Link is the open source version of AppLink, and we were fortunate that Toyota shared our same perspective regarding this open platform, making it more accessible. We recently announced also at CES that we're forming a consortium. The smart device link consortium. Toyota and Ford are founding members, along with Mazda, Suzuki, Subaru, and PSA from France. We believe it's going to enable, again, a more accessible ecosystem, something that developers, I think would be attracted to.

I'd like to distinguish what we're doing with Smart Device Link from CarPlay and Android Auto, for instance. Because that's a question that would immediately come to mind. Those are linking technologies. Why don't you just let Apple and Google do it? From a Ford perspective, we want to provide choice to our customers, so we do offer CarPlay. We do offer Android Auto. If you think about those environments, a really good example, and this is not to be critical, it's just to describe how it is, you can't use Google Maps within CarPlay for obvious reasons, and vice versa. There's no Apple Maps within Android Auto.

We want to be accessible and open to everyone. We're open to all mapping providers with Smart Device Link. We're open to all application providers, provided, again, that they abide by what we have regarding things like driver distraction guidelines and those sorts of things. Smart Device Link provides a more open, accessible platform. It provides the developer more freedom, more control. Working within a Ford look and feel or a Toyota look and feel so the manufacturer can get the distinction that they want, the developer can get the access that they want. Best of all, customers can get the experience that they want.

Our vision is that we want to make people's lives better by changing the way the world moves. In the past, that definition of making people's lives better was essentially affordable transportation. Going all the way back to the days of our founder, Henry Ford, and the Model T, the assembly line. It opened up the highways for all mankind. As we fast forward 113 years, obviously some of the dynamics have changed. Cities are becoming more congested. We're more concerned, obviously, about environment and making sure that we can be compatible with what's happening regarding global warming. We're thinking about our business and our company not just as an automotive business, but as a mobility business as well.

That sense of mobility also has a sense of software and services related to being mobile. My title, connected vehicle and services, speaks to the underlying technology in terms of what it takes to connect a vehicle, what it takes to enable some of that capability, but also the services that we'll be delivering as a result of that. Moving from not just an ownership profile, but to usership and shared models as well. Services absolutely is part of what we'll be about.

You were one of the first companies to look at transportation not just as a service, but as a platform. That you were going to build the cars, but you need to build an ecosystem around that that brought in lots of different partners. Sync was the beginning of that, and then as it's evolved, you've just been lining up more and more partners to expand what the platform can do. Talk about some of those new partners.

You're right. That notion of platform is spot on, because it's not just single purpose, let me get from A to B. Certainly we want to still do great hardware. We do great hardware. Things that are great to look at, great to sit in, and great to drive, but this notion of a platform as well. Sync is an absolutely ideal way of doing that because number one, it recognizes that the smartphone has become essentially the way that we organize our lives, the way that we entertain ourselves, the way that we communicate, the way that we stay in touch. As a platform, it's ideally designed for that, particularly with AppLink, which is the linking technology that we have that would enable you to take advantage of the content, the applications that are on that smartphone, and it opens the door to developers as partners.

One of the partners that we're happy to work with and we're featuring at CES this year is Amazon. We bringing the capability of Alexa into the vehicle, leveraging Sync AppLink as that platform and enabling people to, again, accomplish things more than just going from A to B. Accomplishing those other kinds of experiences that they'd like to have while they're moving.

What kind of experiences? What does bringing Alexa inside the car do for the consumer?

Imagine all the things that you could do at home with Alexa like checking the weather, checking your schedule, checking your calendar, adding to your shopping list. We spend, most of us, an inordinate amount of time either commuting or inside our vehicles, and why should you be restricted from engaging with that network, engaging with Alexa while you're inside the vehicle? You can check your contacts. You can check your calendar. You can add to your shopping list.

One of the interesting things we've done to integrate the vehicle-related aspects of that, you could say, for instance, "Alexa, what are some of the restaurants that are nearby?" Come back with a list. After you go through a couple of queries, you nail down the restaurant that you'd like to go to. All this done through voice, by the way. That destination would immediately then be populated within our embedded navigation system onboard the vehicle which would then obviously take you there very seamlessly.

You don't have to build a voice interface. People are already familiar with Alexa. They've got the service. They've got the tools, but you've taken and expand on it.

Exactly.

You've also been very aggressive in partnering with other hardware vendors. You've got a relationship with Toyota to help build out this platform as well. That's something a lot of car companies wouldn't do.

If we think about the technology space and we think about what makes sense, open platforms, open source platforms, things that make the common underlying technology just more accessible and more available, it's not really a point of differentiation. The differentiation is in the experience that you deliver. It's in the look and feel that's associated with your particular vehicle, your particular brand. Because we wanted to build this ecosystem, we open sourced AppLink, which is our linking technology, and it's called Smart Device Link. Smart Device Link is the open source version of AppLink, and we were fortunate that Toyota shared our same perspective regarding this open platform, making it more accessible. We recently announced also at CES that we're forming a consortium. The smart device link consortium. Toyota and Ford are founding members, along with Mazda, Suzuki, Subaru, and PSA from France. We believe it's going to enable, again, a more accessible ecosystem, something that developers, I think would be attracted to.

I'd like to distinguish what we're doing with Smart Device Link from CarPlay and Android Auto, for instance. Because that's a question that would immediately come to mind. Those are linking technologies. Why don't you just let Apple and Google do it? From a Ford perspective, we want to provide choice to our customers, so we do offer CarPlay. We do offer Android Auto. If you think about those environments, a really good example, and this is not to be critical, it's just to describe how it is, you can't use Google Maps within CarPlay for obvious reasons, and vice versa. There's no Apple Maps within Android Auto.

We want to be accessible and open to everyone. We're open to all mapping providers with Smart Device Link. We're open to all application providers, provided, again, that they abide by what we have in terms of things like driver distraction guidelines and those sorts of things. Smart Device Link provides a more open, accessible platform. It provides the developer more freedom, more control. Working within a Ford look and feel or a Toyota look and feel so the manufacturer can get the distinction that they want, the developer can get the access that they want. Best of all, customers can get the experience that they want.

Let's talk about self-driving cars. I've been coming to this show. We've been talking for a number of years. It's always been something that's going to happen in the future. As an industry insider, are you surprised at how fast this has evolved and how quickly these cars have actually started to get on the road?

I think it's incredible the extent to which the technology has developed and the extent to which we are demonstrating autonomous capability in our vehicles today. If we take a look at ... it's blocked by the crowds because it's very popular right now ... that vehicle behind us is our next generation autonomous vehicle. One of the interesting developments there is we've taken the LiDAR that we sourced from Velodyne. In the past ... actually in the early, early days these were huge, huge units on top of the vehicle from sensing capability.

That's how everybody knew they were on the street. They stood out, and you couldn't miss it if it rolled down the street.

You're exactly right. Now it's the size ... maybe a little bit more ... about the size of a hockey puck. It's got greater range. It's got greater capability, and so instead of our previous generation autonomous vehicle, which had four somewhat large sensors, now we've got two sensors, 360-degree field of view, stereoscopically scanning the landscape. The technology and the capability from a sensing standpoint has advanced incredibly.

Also the technology from a thinking standpoint, so processing all that sensing information and then determining what do I want to tell the vehicle to do. That's advanced by leaps and bounds as well with GPU processors and just the ability that we have to do that sophisticated thinking on a much smaller scale and then finally the responding technology.

Once we decide where the vehicle needs to go, the sensors and the actuators that steer and brake and use the throttle, when you think about things like steer by wire, brake by wire, and throttle by wire, those have advanced as well. Everything's coming together so that we've got really, truly demonstrable platforms that we can experiment with. Now we're still some time away from making this truly something that can operate in the fourth case in a level four manner within a known geospatial area where we've got high-definition mapping, but we're certainly well on the path to achieving that.

Getting back to your original question, I'm somewhat blown away actually by how far the technology has advanced.

You mentioned level four. That's been key to your mission. Let's just explain the difference between level three and level four and why Ford is placing a big bet on level four and saying, "We got to get to level four almost and not have these intermediate steps."

Not to get too detailed, but the difference between level three and level four, level three is some autonomous capability in some conditions, but it will require the driver to essentially remain attentive and be able to take control at any point.

Seems like a good idea on the surface.

It seems like a good idea on the surface. Level four for us and the way it's described within a known geographic bounded area where we've got high-definition mapping, the vehicle is capable of fully autonomous operation without the need for any human engagement at all. One of the challenges that we see with level three is depending on the situation, how do you in a very potentially urgent manner get the person, the occupant to take control again? What's the indication that you use?

Because we think just human what's going to happen if you're accustomed to the vehicle driving itself, then your attentiveness is probably not going to be on the road or on the particular situation. We just don't know how that handoff can be done effectively and in a safe manner. All of our efforts are geared towards number one, making sure that we've got high-definition mapping in the areas where we will be operating autonomously.

Then number two, making sure that we can operate autonomously 100% of the time. That means from a sensing standpoint, from a thinking standpoint, as well as from a responding standpoint. Having things like redundant steering, redundant throttle, redundant breaking so that if something happens, there's always a backup. We just think it's better if there's not the need for the driver to re-engage because we can think of so many scenarios where it would really be a problem.

We've distracted driving problems now when you're supposed to be giving 100% of your attention to the road and your driving. If you take it down to 60%, all of a sudden, you're going to be reading books. We've already had a few of the accidents that have happened so far have been in that gray area between the user and the car and not knowing who's supposed to take over.

You talk about mapping, most people think about mapping as a once-a-year mapping, Google Maps type of process, but you've got cars, they've got LiDAR running. They're creating constant maps, like perpetual maps of the real-time terrain.

You're right.

That's something that it's a whole new way of looking at mapping and transportation.

It's a whole new way of looking at mapping, and these are ... Actually, we call them dark maps when you look at the LiDAR patterns that are developed as a result of it, but they're high-density maps, not only of the roadways but of everything around the road and everything in the immediate proximity, updated on a constant basis, and looking at differential patterns to understand what's changed and what's different.

In fact, we've been able to demonstrate the fact that we can operate autonomously on snow-covered roads for instance, where camera vision systems would be highly problematic.

Everything gets whited out.

Everything gets whited out, but because we've got a high-definition map of the area and because we've got LiDAR and precise positioning, we know where we are without essentially having the cameras seeing where we are. That's one of the reasons from a Ford perspective we think the three levels of sensing technology are critical. Radar, vision, and LiDAR we think make the complete package for autonomous.

Let's talk about a little bit how cities are going to change with these new technologies. People talk about just the landscapes, the physical landscapes of cities being transformed by the introduction of these vehicles. Just talk a little bit about how you see that happening.

That's one of the areas that we need to explore hand in hand with cities, and we've created a group within Ford that's all around cities as partners. Because one of the things that we want to do is not be presumptuous and say, "Hey, we're coming in with the autonomous vehicle, and here's what we think you need, and you just need to adapt." We want to understand from the city's perspectives what are the challenges that you are facing? What are the roadblocks, no pun intended, that you're encountering as you plan for the future?"

Then trying to understand how might we help you overcome some of those barriers? If it's a city like London for instance and the congestion that happens in the city's center and much of that congestion due to potentially commercial vehicle deliveries, for instance. Might we look at some hub and spoke kind of approach where the commercial vehicle comes to a certain place, but then you take an autonomous vehicle to route more precisely into the city's center, for instance?

What we're trying to do is explore those areas with cities in partnership to understand how might we, as we're developing our autonomous capability, help you with some of the problems that you're facing.

Talk about autonomous cars, most people think about a car they're going to own, they're going to park in their driveway, they're going to get in it and it's going to take them to work and then take them home again. It could be that the first wave or autonomous vehicles are shared vehicles or commercial vehicles or working on established routes, replacing bus per se.

Well, in the case of Ford, you're exactly right. Our first autonomous vehicles will be in a sense company owned, and they will be used for ride-sharing services and commercial purposes. Robotics taxis, if you will. One of the challenges is while the transportation at some point will be affordable, these first models will be let's just say expensive for an individual to own. If they're operated as part of a ride-sharing service for instance, and if they've got high utility, then we can bring that service to consumers, to businesses and make it much, much more affordable than even personal ownership on a cost-per-mile basis.

At least initially, our focus is on leveraging that for ride-sharing services, for commercial services. We think that makes the most sense regarding the transition that we see underway.

Two more questions. What is the biggest roadblock for the creation and widespread deployment of autonomous vehicles? Is it the intelligence? Is it the hardware? Is it the regulatory environment? What do you think is going to derail this? What's the biggest obstacle?

I think if I divided it into three areas, technology, society, regulatory, I think from a standpoint of the technology, we can see our way to delivering a vehicle within the next few years as we have already projected.

Like three?

2021.

2021. Okay.

Give me a little bit more time for it.

Okay, four years

We can see our way through that with the technology. From a regulatory standpoint and a societal standpoint, I think those are areas that we need to work most closely with thought leaders, with governmental bodies to make sure that from a regulatory standpoint we can continue to test in a way that's most productive. For instance, if we're going to move forward and in the case of our level four vehicle, we're saying there won't be a driver behind the wheel. We're going to need to test that scenario.

Right now, essentially all the regulations require that there be a driver there, so how can we work with the regulatory bodies to make sure that we can test in a way that makes sense? Being safe, absolutely making sure that we're doing it in a very thoughtful way, but nonetheless, having the regulations and the guidelines I guess evolve so that we can move in that direction. Then from a societal standpoint understanding in our case, it's going to be within known areas, so going back to this notion of cities as partners.

What cities make the most sense for initial deployment? What cities make the most sense regarding some of the problems that they're encountering and how we could potentially help overcome those problems. I think from the standpoint of how we can benefit society; I think that's maybe an underappreciated element of what autonomous vehicles can do.

A lot of people talk about safety, and that's critical, absolutely, the case, but there's broader benefit as well regarding more efficiently moving goods and people from place to place. We think we absolutely play a role in that. In a sense, it all circles back to making people's lives better by changing the way the world moves.

I know you've been trapped in the booth for a lot of this show. What are you most excited about on the show floor, here, what technology do you think is going to transform society? It can be transportation related or not.

I think I would maybe point to a couple of things that we've seen developing even last year and more so this year. Intelligent assistants, personal assistants, digital assistants like Alexa for instance. I think you're going to see much more prevalence of that, much more voice-based interaction just because as technology advances and it becomes more complex, the simple way to interact is through voice, not having to memorize a complicated menu structure, not having to understand displays and controls and how they work.

It makes sense in the car, and it makes sense at home, which is why Alexa took off.

Right, absolutely right. Then when you couple with that what's happening with virtual reality, augmented reality, mixed reality, I think we can foresee a day potentially in an autonomous mode where you're being driven in a vehicle. You don't need to pay attention to the road. The vehicle's doing the driving for you, so all of a sudden, you can consume content and maybe consume that content in a very, very different way.

Maybe you're participating in that meeting while you're driving and you're engaged and involved and from a mixed reality standpoint, people see you, you see them, you're able to interact and use your voice. I think all these things are coming together to create a place that was maybe unimaginable even three or four years ago.

Don, thanks so much for taking the time. If people want to know more about you and Ford and the development of these technologies, where can they find more information about you?

Just go to Ford.com, and you'll find more about what we're doing and the kinds of things that we're making happen in the world today.

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This article originally appeared on PCMag.com.