Rocketing Ford into the Future Getty Images

Rocketing Ford into the Future

The automaker’s vp of research talks about priorities in vehicle autonomy, artificial intelligence, talent and more.

Ken Washington is a former Lockheed R&D chief whose projects included supercomputer design and a satellite that studied the sun. For three years now, he’s been Ford’s chief technology strategist—its vice president of research and advanced engineering.

Usually, cutting edge technology is something the MIT-trained rocket scientist/nuclear engineer is already well aware of, if not something he helped create himself. But he still wasn’t ready for the answer when he asked his son whether he wanted a car or a new smartphone for his 21st birthday.

“He wanted a new smartphone,” Washington told an audience of manufacturing executives at the IndustryWeek Manufacturing & Technology Conference in Cleveland this week. “That surprised me.”

Washington used the anecdote as a springboard to talk about how Ford’s approach to a future where pride of ownership in a vehicle may be less important than getting around in the most efficient way possible and connecting with other devices while you do it. Ford is betting on that future, anyway, with plans to bring an autonomous vehicle to the masses by 2021. To help make good on that, the automaker in February pledged a $1 billion investment in startup firm Argo AI to develop an autonomous vehicle platform. Ford has also been investing heavily in smart mobility technology and research, and plans to spend $4.5 billion on hybrid and electric vehicles that are companionable with autonomous and connected software.

Washington focused on innovation in his M&T talk. He showed video of the Stratsys 3D printer, now in use at its Dearborn Research Innovation Center, which builds horizontally, allowing for the printing of much larger objects than traditional 3D printers. The technology’s most immediate potential is in luxury or performance vehicles with custom parts.        

Other innovations and priority shifts that Washington highlighted in his speech include:

  • The company’s research on carbon fiber, now in use as a lightweighting material in the Ford GT supercar and in high-performance wheels. The carbon fiber wheel, which is 15 pounds lighter than a conventional wheel, “uses a ceramic thermal barrier coating technology similar to what NASA used to build the space shuttle,” Washington said. Ford is currently working with Dow Axa to adapt the technology to other Ford vehicles. 
  • A research lab dedicated to the use of environmentally sustainability materials in vehicles. Materials include agave nectar threads, soybeans, recycled plastic bottles and bamboo.
  • Ergonomics research that reduced assembly line employee injury rate by 70% between 2003 and 2015.
  • Adding 400 software engineers to its workforce
  • A partnership with BMW, Daimler, and Volkswagen setting up an ultra-fast charging network in Europe.

Washington (shown at right) sees the Ford Argo partnership as “very powerful,” combining Argo’s startup economy mindset and robotics expertise with Ford’s mass production abilities and work in developing an autonomous vehicle platform.

With Argo, said Washington, Ford is designing the autonomous vehicle software around its standard vehicle platforms, with some modifications. “By standardizing on a platform … we can quickly bring to scale the autonomous vehicle,” said Washington.

To lure top talent in new technologies, Ford has made some changes in its recruiting, targeting tech hiring fairs more aggressively and collaborating with more universities.

All told, Ford more than 600 “active projects” with universities and research organizations, Washington said. And earlier this year, the automaker announced it would be building a robotics laboratory with the University of Michigan, housing 100+ robotics experts alongside U of M robotics students.

“Robotics, machine learning and AI, we think this is going to be a transformative technology, not only for autonomous vehicles but also for manufacturing and other aspects of our mobility business,” Washington said.

 

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