Ford Focus Electric

Ford and Google team up to predict where drivers are going.
The vehicle will know if you are heading to work based on the time of day.

When it comes to meeting the strict CAFE standards for fuel efficiency across an automaker's fleet, companies are looking for any assistance they can get. The increasing availability of EVs and hybrids are helping automakers to keep their larger less efficient vehicles on the road maps for the future.  But perfecting electrified vehicles is no easy order.

I. Google Teams up With Ford

An hybrid is only as good as the algorithms controlling when its electric drive kicks in to supplement or replace gas drive power.

Ford Motor Company (F) makes the best-selling hybrid to date from any American manufacturer (the Ford Fusion Hybrid).  Later this year, it will release its first battery electric vehicle (BEV), the 2012 Ford Focus Electric.

In the interest of optimizing the performance of its electrified fleet, Ford is teaming up with internet and smartphone giant Google Inc. (GOOG).  Ford will use the new Google Prediction API to custom-tailor your vehicle to your common driving routes, in order to offer optimal performance.

In an interview with DailyTech, Jóhannes Kristinsson, the systems architect of Ford's Vehicle Controls Architecture and Algorithm Design team, comments that the new project differs from Ford's ongoing collaborations with university research teams to study traffic patterns.  

The Predictive API will be exclusively focused on the driver, logging and analyzing their driving history (sort of auto equivalent of your web browsing history).  In that regard, it is oblivious to traffic.  By studying a user's driving patterns, the system tries to "predict where the driver is going and then optimize the upcoming trip with respect to electric driving zones."

For now, though, the algorithm focuses on a single driver's behavior.  Data is collected remotely and transferred to dedicated server hardware as the history logging and route analysis is quite intensive, in terms of storage and processing power.  Data sent to the cloud would be made anonymous to protect users' privacy.

At a later time, information from multiple users in an area could possibly be compiled to form better route-specific programs, allowing a user to get semi-optimized performance for routes they haven't personally driven before.

Describes Mr. Kristinsson, "The focus of this research is how we can make the vehicle perform better for the drivers personal driving habits. In a plug-in hybrid electric vehicle, there are both a traditional engine, and an electrical motor connected to a large battery which can be charged from the grid. The vehicle needs, at all times, to determine which of these to use at any time in order to meet the drivers demands and deliver great drivability."

"If we can predict where the vehicle is going, and confirm this with the driver we can save electrical energy for upcoming occasions, or "electrical zones" in this case, in order to give the driver a great driving experience for all portions of the route."

II. Availability

Mr. Kristinsson confirms that the hardware and software Ford is developing could eventually find its way into consumer vehicles.  But he makes it clear not to expect to see it in consumer models for a little while.

"This is a Research project at Ford with many different objectives. Not only do we want to prove that the technology works, we also need to figure out how to integrate these new features in a seamless way with the rest of the vehicle as well as understand how to handle safety, security and privacy of personal information, something that is of utmost importance for us," stated Mr. Kristinsson, "That said, we do think that this kind of technology could be mature enough to be introduced in consumer vehicles in 4-8 years."

Ford is still trying to work out the exact logistics of the deployment, but it seems clear that the company's internal test fleet of battery electric vehicles and hybrid electric vehicles will be involved.  

Mr. Kristinsson comments, "As availability of electric and plug-in hybrid electric vehicles are limited at this time, we are investigating other ways of collecting the behavioral data we need. This involves installing data loggers in conventional vehicles for a select set of users, and then transfer this data to our prototype plug-in hybrids. We are also investigating using data from other sources available for us. It is yet too early to say how we should roll out a larger test, but we do want to make sure we are covering all sort of drivers to reflect the multitude of our customers."

III. Ford -- Back to the Cloud

This won't be the first cloud service that Ford offers, it already offer cloud services through Sync. So far, those services have been strictly for infotainment and navigation. This would be the first cloud service by Ford that can directly control vehicle settings. This could help vehicles like the Focus Electric optimize themselves for the destination with little driver interaction.

Current generation Ford vehicles lack a built-in 3G modem.  Instead, they connect to the cloud via devices like wireless-enabled smartphones or tablets.

As prices drop, Ford is expected to install wireless modems in its fleet.  These devices would not only improve the performance of Sync/MyFord Touch by allowing remote updates and upgrades, but could also be employed in more advanced assignments -- like the aforementioned predictive electric drivetrain algorithms.

“Then they pop up and say ‘Hello, surprise! Give us your money or we will shut you down!' Screw them. Seriously, screw them. You can quote me on that.” -- Newegg Chief Legal Officer Lee Cheng referencing patent trolls

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