Ford’s Don Butler connects during keynote speech at Mackinac Policy Conference

In 2025, more than 5 billion “things,” essentially the tools and devices of our everyday lives, will be connected, and while it will not be not immediately apparent to us as we progress from morning to evening, cellular technology will be at the core of this connection.

Invisible to us, but not irrelevant.

In fact, cellular connectivity is so powerful, Ford Motor Co. has committed to equipping every vehicle it makes with connected technology capable of communicating with other vehicles and with the infrastructure.

In his keynote speech during the Mackinac Policy Conference, Don Butler, executive director of connected vehicle platform and product with Ford Mobility, shared the finer points of why this move is so important, not just to Ford, but to communities across Michigan.

“Bringing shared data within communities will bring significant benefit, such as reducing gridlock, freeing up curb space, decreasing road hazards, and potentially returning valuable green space into our neighborhoods,” he says.

Ford is working to validate cellular vehicle-to-everything (C-V2X) so that cars, bikes, pedestrians, stop lights, and traffic signs will share information using a common language.

“This isn’t something futuristic,” Butler says. “It’s something that can happen right now.”

The cellular choice ensures that vehicles will talk to each other fluidly, and in some cases, as with V2V, the communication will be direct.

“You actually don’t even need a SIM card in the vehicle,” says Butler. “It also leverages where the industry is already headed, and so some of that heavy lifting will already be done for you.”

In essence, Ford will be implementing connected solutions on top of networks that will exist fully by the time the C-V2X technology is ready.

“When it comes to technology, it’s not necessarily about being first or stepping out in front, it’s being thoughtful and being in a position where you can take advantage of trends and where [technology] is already headed.”

Speaking the same tech

Two distinct technologies will come together to make this advanced communication happen. Direct car-to-car communication, which bypasses any central data point, will complement longer-range communication.

Between 2007 and 2017, more than 150,000 3G and 4G cell towers were deployed across the U.S., yet the shorter and higher wavelength frequency of 5G technology requires a higher density of cell points to take advantage of the greater throughput and bandwidth of this spectrum. Over the next eight years, 770,000 small cell sites will need to be employed densely, the range of these sites being measured in feet, rather than in miles or kilometers.

With this advance in technology, Butler predicts that network companies will approach municipalities to create smart infrastructures to allow vehicles to communicate with intersections to manage timing of signals, or access lidar to map the physical space to make transportation safer and more effective.

“We believe that those win-win possibilities are right at our fingertips,” Butler says.

Through a partnership with, and eventual acquisition of, Autonomic, Ford created a Transportation Mobility Cloud, which serves as a hub for the data that allows for this orchestration to work. Building on the understanding that collaboration moves everyone forward faster, Butler believes that the Transportation Mobility Cloud will open up to connect diverse mobility solutions from mass transit, connected vehicles, pedestrians, infrastructure, and service providers, all working together to make for a safer transportation community.

“We are actually inviting others to join us in helping shape this shared platform. Automakers, large scale fleet operators, public transit operators, as well. We believe everyone can share in the value that will be created by this new mobility platform,” Butler says. This connection will pave the way to eventual large scale autonomous vehicle deployment.

Startup Argo AI, in partnership with Ford, is helping build the business models and testing necessary to scale AV beginning in 2021, and Butler says Ford is committed to focusing on a human-centered approach to meeting the needs of moving people as well as goods in new and different ways.

Safe, connected infrastructure

With the spread of microcells and 5G technology, Butler predicts that many of our major metropolitan areas will be equipped to be fully communicative by 2025, and then it’s just a case of leveraging the C-V2X capabilities, building on the network that has already been established.

Yet, additional communication means the generation of big data, and Butler stresses that Ford takes cybersecurity as seriously as it takes safety.

“We were the first OEM to actually conduct a vehicle cybersecurity audit,” says Butler. “We assessed ourselves. We had an outside company come in and do that for us, not just the vehicle, but what are the policies, what happens in our manufacturing, even upstream to our suppliers, what kinds of things do they have in place?”

In an increasingly connected world, Ford is still known for its best seller, F-150. How does this fact square with the need to embrace change in order to remain relevant moving forward? It’s a complex answer, but Butler sees the solidity of the American auto industry, blended with Silicon Valley-like innovation, and fearless partnering with fast-moving startups will help Ford move boldly forward.

“I’m more toward the future,” says Butler. “But I absolutely benefit from our great work on our solid cars and trucks, and the passion that goes into building those vehicles, and the fact that that still is at our core. The way I think about it is that we are not just a hardware company. We are a software and services company as well. We are helping deliver those solutions for the future, and blend both of those worlds in a way that makes sense.”
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