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Autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid
Ford is testing Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicles at night. (Credit: Ford)

The car of the future may well be controlled by a certified virtual driver that relies on the cloud for guidance, ranging from directions to software security updates.

Those are some of the concepts laid out today by Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronics systems at Ford Research and Innovation, during a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast. And tech companies in the Seattle area are playing a role in turning those concepts into reality.

For example, Buczkowski said the main reason for his Seattle stopover was to meet with executives at Microsoft, which has a partnership with Ford Motor Co. to develop cloud connected services on its Azure platform.

James Buczkowski at Ford
James Buczkowski focuses on research and innovation at Ford Motor Co. (Credit: Ford)

Ford is also working with Amazon to bring Alexa, its cloud-based, voice-enabled AI interface, into the automotive realm. Using an Amazon Echo speaker, car owners could have Alexa check the fuel level or start up the engine from their house – or check what’s happening at home from their car. Tableau Software and UIEvolution also number among Ford’s Seattle-area tech partners, Buczkowski said.

But that’s just the beginning. “My focus is on finding innovation to bring to the company. … It can’t be simply about making more cars and trucks,” Buczkowski said.

Ford has been experimenting with a ride-share shuttle service called GoRide for its employees in Dearborn, Mich., and the scope of the experiment is due to widen. There’s also a car-sharing service called GoDrive. In California’s Silicon Valley, Ford is hooking up bicycles with Info Cycle sensor kits to get a handle on bike usage in urban settings.

The company has created a smartphone app, called FordPass, to pull together a variety of mobility services ranging from finding a car to borrow, to finding a place to park, to finding a living, breathing expert who can provide further assistance.

Like Tesla Motors, Google, Apple and other companies, Ford is heavily involved in efforts to develop self-driving cars. It’s been testing robo-cars in the snow in Michigan, and in the dark in Arizona.

Buczkowski said Ford eventually plans to offer autonomous vehicles that hit Level 4 on SAE International’s scale. That means they can operate with full autonomy in a specified set of driving modes. In comparison, the Autopilot feature provided today on Tesla Motors’ Model S electric car is considered Level 2.

Tesla’s Autopilot became the focus of controversy when the company revealed that a Model S driver was killed in May when his car collided with a truck that was in the middle of a left turn on a Florida highway. The National Highway Transportation Safety Administration is investigating that accident.

This week, The Wall Street Journal reported that the Securities and Exchange Commission is investigating how Tesla handled the matter. Today, Consumer Reports said Autopilot provides “too much autonomy too soon” and needs an overhaul (including a new name).

Buczkowski declined to comment on the Tesla case. However, he noted that building up a track record for autonomous vehicles isn’t merely a matter of racking up mileage.

“A lot of folks talk about how they’ve got 10 million, 100 million miles of cumulative time driving with something, an algorithm, whatever,” he said. “You do have to remember, though, that it’s really the scenarios. How many unique and different and important scenarios the system experiences vs. how many miles. Driving five miles in the city, you can probably encounter 100 scenarios. Driving 100 miles on a freeway, you may encounter only two or three.”

To address the issue of validating the safety of self-driving algorithms, Buczkowski advocated developing standards for a “certified virtual driver.” Autonomous vehicles could be put through a standardized testing procedure for certification, just as the NHTSA certifies the crashworthiness of garden-variety, human-driven vehicles.

Making sure self-driving cars were secure against hackers would have to be part of the routine. “Having a connected vehicle, just like any connected device, says that you’re going to have to have security updates all the time,” Buczkowski said. That means multiple layers of cybersecurity would have to be built into an autonomous vehicle, to avoid the kind of trouble that made headlines last year when researchers took control of a Jeep Cherokee.

Who would be in charge of the certification? Researchers have said the NHTSA would likely play a role, but Buczkowski said that’s yet to be determined. He said policymakers still had a long way to go to get up to speed with the technology.

“There’s a lot of pressure to put regulations in place,” Buczkowski said. “Putting regulation policy in place without good knowledge results in bad policy – which can hurt, and not help.”

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