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January 6, 2015 at 9:19 AM

CES: Ford announces “Smart Mobility”

LAS VEGAS – Ford’s new chief executive is making a return trip to the big stage at the Consumer Electronics Show.

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In 2007, Mark Fields joined Bill Gates on stage to announce the Sync dashboard electronics system developed by Microsoft and Ford.

Here’s Fields on stage with Gates in an image provided by the Consumer Electronics Association:

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Seven years later Fields was named chief executive of the carmaker, replacing Alan Mulally, who had been courted by Gates for the top job at Microsoft.

Ford’s now on to the third generation of its Sync platform, along with autonomous “self-driving” cars and other automotive applications of computers and online services.

“We really do applaud all the new product development and ideas for consumers,” Fields said. “We especially applaud the focus on the auto industry at this year’s CES.”

New technologies are also expanding the goals of carmakers like Ford, which is looking beyond making vehicles to providing broader traffic and transportation solutions.

“We’re driving to be both a product and mobility company and hopefully help the way the world moves,” he said.

This set up a presentation in which Fields talked about a series of software projects to improve transportation systems around the world. It asserted Ford’s emergence as a software and systems company but it left some in the gadget-loving CES audience longing for Fields to bring just one cool car on stage.

Fields started his speech by talking about congestion challenges faced in “mega cities” such as Mumbai and Los Angeles. The rise of more mega cities could to global gridlock.

“Our roadmap has to include not only smarter cars but smarter roads and smarter cities,” he said.

Fields said people will use a variety of vehicles in the future and coordinate trips with technology, particularly mobile devices.

As part of its investment in this area, Fields announced that Ford’s creating 25 “Smart Mobility” experiments across the globe.

Ford’s also working on software and sensor systems to develop autonomous and semi-autonomous driving systems.

Fields said the company will produce autonomous cars but it’s not engaging in a race to produce them. Instead, the company wants to develop versions that are accessible to the masses, he said.

Ford’s mobility experiments are beginning with “Big Data Drive” in Michigan, a project in which employees’ driving is being tracked. That data will be shared through Ford’s open-source resource platform, he said.

The next phase is look at the purposes of trips people make to make “better experiences” for drivers.

Another experiment in London is looking at driving behaviors and the development of a driver scorecard that can be used to personalize insurance rates.

In Palo Alto, the company’s testing a system that adds monitors to bikes and tracks their usage.

Ford’s also looking into car-sharing and other “shared ownership” approaches for cars. In London and India, it’s experimenting with car sharing programs similar to the Car2Go venture operated by Mercedes-Benz.

Ford employees are also the guinea pigs in an experiment with a car-swap program that lets them borrow each other’s cars – if one needs a truck for the weekend, for instance – using an app to coordinate arrangements.

In New York City and London, the company’s experimenting with “dynamic shared buses” that are reserved with apps running on smartphones, similar to private coach services such as Microsoft’s Connect shuttles in the Seattle area.

Additionally, Ford’s working with 16 universities on research projects and it has invited software developers to work with the company on “mobility challenges.”

If this was more of a race and less of a deliberate process of research and development, Ford might instead start buying startups that are building similar transportation apps and services. The prospect of a rich acquisition could motivate more developers to get involved.

Perhaps Ford’s brand and careful approach will make mainstream consumers more comfortable adopting new transportation technologies.

But they’ll need to see new hardware to get excited about what Ford’s doing with software.

Related: Photos from CES

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