Don Butler, executive director of connected vehicle platform and product, Ford Mobility <span class='image-credits'>Detroit Regional Chamber</span>

Mobility Moments Podcast: Embedded at the Mackinac Policy Conference with Don Butler, Ford Mobility



Driven - Mobility Moment: Don Butler, Ford Motor Company

Hello. I'm Claire Charlton, your host of Driven's Mobility Moments podcast, embedded at the Mackinac Policy Conference. While on Mackinac Island, I met up with Don Butler. He's executive director of connected vehicle platform and product with Ford Mobility. We talked about Ford's future with connected vehicles, its partnership with a company called Argo AI, and just how Ford is figuring out what it is that customers want in their vehicles. Join me for this episode of Mobility Moments podcast.

Don, first, before we talk about business, let's talk about the island. Are you a visitor to the island normally, or is this your first time?

It's not my first time, but it's actually been a few years since I've been up to the island, and so looking forward to the visit not only to speak about Ford and what we're doing in mobility, but to take in the island and its charms as well, so excited to be back, actually.

Do you have a favorite part about the island?

You know what I love to do, and I've done it once, is actually run around the island. I love doing it. I think it's about eight miles, if I'm not mistaken.

Eight miles.

Yeah. Yeah. We've done that, and we've done some hiking, my wife and I, in the interior of the island as well. We love being up here, and we love just the fact that it's a slower pace, and it's a kind of lifestyle that just makes you want to sit back, relax, and enjoy, but as I've said, it's been a few years, so looking forward to taking in some of the sights.

Good. I hope you enjoy it.

Thanks.

You are the executive director of connected vehicle platform and product for Ford Mobility. Did I get that right?

You got that right.

You have a big business card!

That's a mouthful of a title, isn't it?

This afternoon in your keynote speech, you talked about Ford's commitment to 100 percent connectivity. Can you just go over that again?

Sure. What we mean by that is that the vehicle has its own independent connection to the network or the Internet of things, if you will, and practically, what that means is it's a cellular data modem very similar to the cable model that would be inside your house for viewing television or content, but the car then becomes connected. What we can do with that connection is enable you to remotely interact with the vehicle. For instance, you could check to see that you've locked the car, for instance, and lock it if you haven't, or in the case of Michigan where the winter can be very, very cold and the summer can be very, very hot, actually preconditioning the vehicle remotely so that you can start it and warm it up or cool it down depending on the temperature. We give you the ability to control or interact with the vehicle remotely.

We also, through that embedded connection, have the opportunity to, in a sense, query the vehicle and extract data from the vehicle to understand how it's operating, how it's performing, and that enables our engineers to do a better job in terms of designing and developing, but it also gives us an early warning signal in case there are situations that we need to correct or remediate.

As we go forward beginning in a couple of years, not only will that embedded connection allow us to extract data from the vehicle, but it will also allow us to write to the vehicle, and so being able to perform what we call over-the-air software updates. It's something that we're all familiar with our iPhones or our Android phones, getting an update to your operating system. We're going to be able to do something similar with our vehicles updating all the significant control modules on board, so that embedded connection gives us the ability to provide remote control to you and gives us the ability to both read and write data to the vehicle.

I see connected technology as sort of that sweet spot between level zero and autonomous vehicles. Am I right in that?

I think the way to think about connectivity is more of a foundational layer on which other capabilities, on which other experiences, solutions, and products will be built. That's why, within my title, for instance, says platform. That's like that underlying foundational layer that enables us then to build and layer technologies on top of it.

If you take, for example, autonomous vehicles, within Ford, we've been very persistent and insistent that while connectivity is an enabler and can augment what we do with autonomous driving, we need to be able to operate autonomously if the vehicle, for some reason, should lose its connection. The vehicle needs to know enough and be able to sense precisely enough its environment and understand and operate within its environment if it loses that connection.

But are we then able to do with that connection? Well, number one, we can update the map on the vehicle remotely so that it's always got the freshest information. Then number two, we can digest or, again, extract data from the vehicle to understand how it's behaving in different situations, and maybe a particular maneuver could've been done in a safer or more precise way by basically being able extract that data and understand given the environment how did the vehicle perform. We can continuously improve the performance of the vehicle.

Now, I imagine there is some machine-learning that happens in that case, and I think that's where your partnership with Argo AI comes in.

Absolutely.

Can you explain how it's going to move forward?

Sure. Maybe also describing what does Argo AI do versus what Ford does. I mean, the way to think about autonomous driving, there's two different components to it. One is what we call the virtual driver system. That's the thinking, sensing, kind of directing piece of it. That's the human replacement, if you will. That's what Argo AI is focused on, so the sensing piece, the computing piece, the artificial intelligence piece to basically digest the environment, understand what's going on, compute and determine what is the right action to take at this point, and then delivering that action or sending that communication. That's the VDS or virtual driver system.

The other piece is the automated vehicle platform itself. That's the hardware, the control infrastructure. Those are the systems that actually then take that command and execute it. Now, it's very different than a traditional vehicle though because it's got redundancy that's built in because you want to make sure that you can operate very, very safely in all kind so circumstances all kinds of ways, so that autonomous vehicle platform is where we're focusing and concentrating on those control systems for things like the brakes, things like the steering, things like the throttle to not only process that input, but then understand, am I doing this in the right way, is there something that I need to be aware of in terms of how the system is performing to counterbalance that and make sure that it's delivering and responding as intended?

Argo AI does that virtual driver piece, and Ford will be developing the autonomous vehicle platform itself.

It sounds like a good partnership.

It's a great partnership. One of the things that really benefits us is, it speaks to this notion of collaboration and the fact that no one company can do it alone. Argo AI, what we benefit from this is some of the best thinkers in terms of artificial intelligence and machine-learning. Also, because we've partnered with them and it's set up as a separate company, we have an equity interest in them, but they are a separate company, let's be frank, one of the things that attracts talent is the opportunity participate in an equity upside, and much as I would love to think our stock is going to triple over the next couple of years, and hopefully it will, I don't know, I'm not prospecting, but odds are that it won't; however, if you think about a startup and the ability to attract talent, leveraging equity participation, for instance, that's what we're able to deliver with Argo AI.

The other thing as well is because Argo AI is a partner of ours, but they're also independent, they'll be able to market, in a sense, that virtual driver system to other companies as well. Not just Ford, but they'll be able to participate with other OEMs should they feel that they need that kind of capability. It's kind of the best of both words for us. We get to participate and be a part of that talent that's coming in driving the sophistication that we need, and also enabling them to also offer that to others as well. Again, because of our equity participation within Argo AI, we could participate in that upside also.

Nice. From a corporate perspective, in your keynote, or actually, in the Q&A afterwards, you talked about the now-near-far concept. I'm wondering what triggers are there that help Ford figure out what to move boldly forward on and what to hold back and do more testing and research on because we talk about that balance between getting on the road and testing more.

Yeah. There is that tension, absolutely. When we think of that now-near-far lands and when we think about what are the factors that weigh in terms of our decision-making, and it may sound trite, but we are really around a human-centered experience. We're focused on what do people want, what do people need, how will people react, how would people want to experience this in a real environment?

We don't focus on the technology in order to push it and go as far and as fast as we can go. It always starts with getting back to the human and understanding that. That's why within our autonomous vehicle testing, for instance, we understand that when the vehicle's driving itself, the driver can become somewhat inattentive. That's why much of our focus up to this point has been on what we call level four autonomy, which is essentially completely autonomous, but within a geo-fenced area, within a known area that is highly mapped, and as I talked about before, if that vehicle loses the connection, the vehicle still understands enough about its environment to be able to operate. There, we've being very, very careful and very, very thoughtful.

In another dimension where, let's just say, the penalty of not quite getting it right initially is less. If I think about some of the services that we're offering on our entertainment systems, for instance, and we recently announced the ability to leverage and use Waze on your mobile phone but have it project within the SYNC screen and the system inside the vehicle. I'll be honest with you, it's a great experience, but are those some things that we'd like to improve as we go? Absolutely, but we'd rather start with delivering that great experience, and if there's something that annoys you, at least it annoys you and doesn't cause any kind of significant harm.

When we think about that tension, we think about what's the impact on the human in the equation. If the worst happens, what is the outcome, and we use that to guide how fast we move and how quickly we move. There's this balance between very, very systematic, very, very thoughtful, very, very diligent in terms of our specification, and then also on the other hand, when it's right, being agile, being responsive, putting out what we call minimally-viable products, begin to get experiences, but, again, the cases of failure there much, much less in terms of the significance.

When you're talking about what customers want, Ford believes that customers want voice recognition. They want to be able to talk to their vehicle to a certain extent. Tell me more about that.

I would say it's not necessarily that customers want voice interaction…

Well, they don't know they want it.

They don't know they want it. You said it exactly right, but when we understand how do people operate within the vehicle environment and what would be most comfortable for them in terms of controlling that vehicle environment, we come back to voice as being one of the key enablers of making that happen. There's a couple of reasons for that.

Actually, it started with SYNC just in terms of keeping your hands on the wheel and your eyes on the road and not distracted in terms of trying to figure out what button does what in this scenario. That's first, but then the other thing that we've seen as we look at things like Amazon Alexa and Siri and Google Now, others are seeing the same kinds of things, voice becomes a way of abstracting, of a way of delivering that technology without consumers really understanding what's going on in the background.

You simply say what you'd like to have happen, and it does-

And it does!

... as opposed to thinking, "Which combination do I need to do to be what I'd like it be?" It's not so much that consumers are saying, "Hey, I want to use voice interaction." Consumers are saying, "Make it simple for me to do what I'd like to do inside the vehicle and empower me in how you do that."

Well, I can imagine there's that double layer of frustration with the switch combination of pressing buttons that you talked about and being blocked from doing so when you're driving because it's safer, and you're like, "Why can't I just do ... " and you just say, "Please." Well, I always say please to my assistant, but I know it's crazy.

You're so polite.

I know. I'm too polite.

But instead of punching the address in, take me to 334 Smith Road in Detroit, just really, really simple, or, "Alexa, where is the nearest Chinese restaurant," and then just having it populate within the navigation system and just going straight there. Right.

Last question. Ford recently moved a bunch of employees into a new facility, a new building, new-old building in Corktown. Is that part of your department? Are you going to be working there? What's happening there?

Some of my team will be eventually moving to that area, some of the team that actually support the AV, the autonomous vehicle and the electric vehicle teams because, again, remember, connectivity is one of the foundational enables for those services. Some of my folks will be part of the teams that move. We've already begun to move a few of the folks there to a building that's called The Factory in Corktown.

What's really neat about that is, in a way, it's really symbolic of the change and the transition that we're undertaking as a business as well because there's our hardware business, and it's been built up over a hundred-plus years, so there's something that's solid about that foundation. Similarly, if we think about what's happened within Detroit and within Corktown, we've got sort of these good bones of these buildings that have been suitable for industrial uses, and we're redefining what industrial means, moving from just being a hardware company to a software, a services, and an experiences company, and the software, services, and experiences, that's what those teams will be working on.

We're excited about Corktown. Obviously it's got some roots in the family's history dating back to Cork, Ireland. We've had folks that have moved down in the last week or so, and we're excited about continuing to grow our presence in that area. Hopefully we'll have some other exciting announcements coming forward soon.

Well, we'll be looking for those. Thank you so much.

Great. Great.

Thank you, Don, for talking with us today, and enjoy the rest of your time here at the Mackinac Policy Conference.

Thank you, Claire.


Well, I can't be certain, but I think the announcements Don mentioned might include Ford's June 11th purchase of the historic Michigan Central Station in Detroit.

Thanks for joining me for this edition of Driven's Mobility Moments podcast, embedded at the Mackinac Policy Conference. Find lots more episodes of Mobility Moments, plus our new Startup Spotlight podcast at Apple Podcasts and Google Play, and visit us at detroitdriven.us. Subscribe to our newsletter, and learn more about how Detroit is the region leading the world in mobility. I'm Claire Charlton.
 
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