Earlier this month, 170,000 technology geeks and innovation junkies converged in Las Vegas for the massive International Consumer Electronics Show.
They were greeted there by 3,600 exhibitors showing off every new whiz-bang gadget conceivable, from rocket skates and 3-D printers to smartglasses and wrist-drones.
Ford Motor Co. (IW 500/8) was there, of course, touting the future of autonomous cars and clever software upgrades.
But when Ford President and CEO, Mark Fields, took the stage for his keynote speech on opening day, he announced a vision that goes far beyond high-tech toys.
"Even as we at Ford showcase our latest connected cars and plans for autonomous vehicles, we are coming to CES with a higher purpose – one that started more than 111 years ago with our founder, Henry Ford," Fields said.
"Henry Ford believed that a good company makes excellent products and earns a healthy return," he explained. "But he proved that a great business does all that while creating a better world."
And that, he said, is exactly what he was at CES to discuss.
To do that, he began his talk by taking the audience out of the glittery streets of Vegas to the crowded, polluted roadways of India.
"More than 18 million people live in Mumbai – its population density is 17 times greater than here in Las Vegas," he said. "Cars inch along the roadways with horns blaring. Trains are so packed that commuters' phones and eyeglasses often get crushed under the pressure of bodies."
The city, like much of the world, he explained, suffers from poor air quality, crumbling and insufficient infrastructure and dismal poverty rates. Combined, those factors render enormous swathes of the global population stuck and immobile in their current position, unable to keep up with the rapidly changing world around them.
As the leader of one of the world's largest mobility companies, Fields seems to have taken it upon himself to change that.
Doing so, however, he first had to expand the term "mobility" into something a bit more ambitious than just getting around.
"At Ford, mobility is about far more than motion," he said. "It involves moving food to the stores you shop in, ambulances arriving at the scene of an accident in time to save a life, or making it to your daughter's recital on time."
Enabling more of the world to do that – and leveraging all of the uber-cool technologies of CES to do so in the cleanest, safest, and most connected and efficient way possible – means removing any of the barriers standing in the way of progress in Mumbai, in China and here in the U.S.
"[Mobility] is really about progress," Fields said. "Human progress."
Ford's Technology Enablers
It's easy to read all of this as just high-minded executive rhetoric – and some of it surely is just that – but Fields followed this preamble with what he called three key technology "enablers" that together might make an enormous impact on both the auto industry and its customers. If used correctly, Fields could even be right. It might help save the world.
1. Connectivity: To suit and enable today's drivers, Fields insists that connectivity must be a basic component in all new models. This includes systems that offer smartphone-like experiences, intuitive interfaces and a simplified voice-activated systems. In other words, cars of the future must be built around the needs of the today's drivers: they must be smart, simple and powerful.
2. Software & Sensor Technologies: If the goal is to make mobility safe and available for the largest population possible, then this is the biggest piece of the puzzle to solve.
Building better software and sensor platforms into the next generation of cars can make driving easier and safer than ever before. While full-automation is obviously the end goal, today's camera, sonar and radar technologies can already begin assisting drivers with parking and navigation, accident avoidance and all of the impossible hurdles of coping with heavy transportation in locations without the infrastructure to support it.
3. Big, Smart Data: "Data and analytics will play a critical role in determining our future," Fields said. Theirs and everyone else's, too.
According to Fields , every car on the road produced about 25 gigabytes of data per hour. Breaking that down into real-time information could help relieve congestion in busy cities, optimize routes to consume less gas and create less pollution, not to mention saving drivers all over the world time and money that should be applied to much more important matters than their commute.
Taken together, Fields argues that these enablers are opening up a new future for both Ford and the future of mobility in general.
"We have given our engineers, scientists and technologist a challenge," Fields concluded. "We have asked them to use innovation not just to create better products. We have asked them to innovate to make the entire transportation experience easier, to make people's lives better and, in doing so, to create a better world."