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Ford engineer talks user interface, autonomous cars, life in Silicon Valley

There are some big changes going on at Ford. The Blue Oval recently declared that it wants to be a “mobility” company as well as a car company, and is growing its presence in Silicon Valley. Ford hopes these moves will help it keep ahead of trends like autonomous vehicles, smartphone connectivity, and multimodal transportation that are changing the way people interact with cars.

That means bridging the cultures of Silicon Valley and Detroit, and working not just like one of the world’s largest automakers, but also like a tech startup. It’s something Ford User Interface Supervisor Jennifer Brace knows all about. She grew up in Detroit around its traditional car culture, but now works at Ford’s Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, managing how people interact with cars, and how cars interact with the environment.

“I wouldn’t say I was necessarily a gearhead,” Brace said of her perspective when she joined Ford. Rather than engines and suspension systems, what really caught her interest were door chimes and other little items most car buyers take for granted. She worked on switches before joining Ford’s first human-machine interface group when it was started in 2006. It’s an area that’s only gotten more important in the decade since, as cars have added more features, and touch-screens and voice command have augmented analog controls.

“The transition has met some… I’ll just say, some strife,” Brace noted. Not everyone is happy about replacing a knob or switch with a pixelated facsimile on a touch-screen. At the same time, carmakers need to include features more tech-savvy customers want, and convey more information to drivers without causing too much distraction. Finding that technological balance is key, Brace said.

“You have to walk that line between giving them something that feels familiar enough that they’re not intimidated by it, but also trying to utilize the technology and bring it to them in a new and compelling way.”

It also means choosing features because they are worth putting in a car, and not just because they exist, or because they’re generating a lot of buzz. Brace pointed to gesture control as a technology that may not be ready for prime time. While other carmakers like BMW are enthusiastic about gesture control, she believes it’s a bit too much of a stretch for the average customer.

“I think it’s interesting, but I’m not sure it’s ready,” Brace said. The best way to get people used to a new in-car feature is to design to function like something those people already use outside the car, she said. Unless you’re a Jedi, you probably don’t accomplish many tasks by just waving your hands in the air, and the alternative is taking lots of time to learn a new set of controls.

“I think we’re fooling ourselves if we think someone’s going to sit in that car for 20 minutes and play with all of the gadgets before they start driving,” Brace said. Voice controls seem like a better option for now, but Brace noted there is no “silver bullet.”

Related: Ford’s Sync 3 system atones for the sins of MyFord Touch

Another challenge facing automotive engineers today is autonomous driving. It’s a key part of Ford’s grand mobility vision, and many people both inside and outside the industry think it’s only a matter of time before self-driving cars are available to the public. But Ford is finding that humans may be a little too eager to give up control.

“We’ve actually seen [people] fall asleep in labs and things like that,” Brace said, referring to tests of semi-autonomous systems, the stepping stones to full-on self-driving cars. Systems like Tesla’s “Autopilot” may actually be more complicated to deploy, she said, because they still require drivers to pay attention some of the time. One possible solution is to put time limits on semi-autonomous driving, so drivers don’t lose focus, Brace said. Future systems may only be usable in certain situations, like stop-and-go traffic, she said.

When it comes to fully-autonomous cars, though, all bets are off. It’s still unclear what the user interface of production self-driving cars will look like, Brace said, but there will definitely be much less information to present the driver. The focus may shift even more to infotainment features, because once drivers don’t have to pay attention to the road, “they can do anything they want.” In a way, it’s easier than designing for a car that switches between manual and autonomous driving, but it may come at a price.

“Sometimes I wonder if I’m designing myself out of a job,” Brace remarked.

There’s certainly no shortage of things for a driver to pay attention to once the car takes over driving. Ford announced Amazon Echo smart home connectivity at CES in January, and plans to make the feature available later this year. It’s also following a herd of other carmakers and adding Apple CarPlay and Android Auto. There are lots of companies competing for dashboard space, and Ford likes it that way.

Letting smartphones and other tech “be the leader” is Ford’s strategy, Brace said. The company relies on customer demand to tell it what features to put in its cars. It has its own app platform called AppLink to enable that. It’s a better approach than “to assume that we know what’s going to come next,” Brace believes.

That doesn’t mean Ford plans to lead all of the forward thinking to the tech companies. It recently expanded its presence in Silicon Valley, and Brace says the lab there has a completely different atmosphere than company headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, at the heart of the traditional U.S. car industry.

Many of the people working at Ford’s Palo Alto research center are younger, and don’t have any previous automotive experience. A smaller team with diverse job descriptions and an open office also make communication easier than at Ford’s main campus, where different departments operate out of separate buildings.

“So literally I’m sitting next to guys who do design, next to guys who do software, next to guys who do interiors for cars,” Brace explained. That makes collaboration a lot easier, and helps people from different disciplines work together on ideas seamlessly.

Some of those ideas go far beyond the touch-screen for your next Focus. In fact, some go beyond cars altogether. One of the projects Brace and her team are working on is InfoCycle, a research project on bicycles. It involves placing sensors on bicycles to see how they’re used. Ford believes the data could be used for things like identifying traffic patterns, and helping city planners map out bike lanes.

The Palo Alto research lab is likely the most visible example of Ford’s nascent effort to move beyond simply making and selling cars. Ford’s bosses think they can transform the company into a purveyor of a more diverse array of products and services, and the tech industry is vital to that transformation. But while Ford is paying more attention to Silicon Valley, it isn’t the center of the Ford universe, Brace noted.

“It’s a really interesting place to be, but headquarters is still in Dearborn.”

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