Laura Merling is vice president of Autonomous Vehicle Solutions for Ford Smart Mobility LLC, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company formed to accelerate the company’s plans to design, build, grow and invest in emerging mobility services. She took this position under a year back and was reporting to Jim Hackett who was the chairman of Ford Smart Mobility at that time. Hackett has now taken over the reigns of the company as the CEO which shows the direction, or transformation of Ford as Laura describes it:
“It's really exciting when you think about the changes that need to happen in the company or even in the industry. It’s a complete transformation that needs to happen and is much more than moving to the vehicle as a software stack. It's everything from how we build and manufacturer cars to how they get used by our customers"
Transformation of an industry over a hundred years old doesn’t sound like an easy task. I asked Laura how one gets started with that?
The way that we build and manufacturer vehicles have remained the same. We may have automated parts of the plant and parts of our system but as we look forward, it's about using digital services and using new technologies like 3D printing to shorten the cycle for delivery of products into market. The whole automotive industry is its own IOT environment- from what we do in producing vehicles all the way through to delivering and using vehicles.
Consumers are becoming more technology savvy and interested in pieces of technology whether it's associated with safety or entertainment so technology adoption rate will happen faster than it has in the past.
What do you mean by digital services? Can you give us few examples?
Most people think of Digital Services as streaming video in the backseat but there's a variety of other things that are really interesting. Let’s take congestion charging as an example. Maybe congestion charging in the future won’t be based on time of day or where you are in the city, but on the number of passengers you have in the vehicle. Using sensors if I know how many people are on the seat, I might switch congestion charging. If you've got two passengers, you don't get charged. If you have three passengers you might actually get a credit of some sort of that for the city.
You might also use the same sensors from a safety perspective so if you move to autonomy, you want to make sure that everybody's buckled before the vehicle takes off. That same sensor data that can also be used if there’s an accident. Before the crew goes to help those passengers, it would be helpful information to know how many people were in the vehicle.
You’re taking the same data set in three different use cases. One might be about optimizing traffic, one would just be for safety of the people in the vehicle, and then the other one for recovery. That's just one example. Imagine a self-driving vehicle. Wouldn't you want to know in real time if there's a problem on the vehicle? Think of it as predictive maintenance that self-dispatches itself or moves itself to a safe spot.
The way I'd like to position it is that the vehicle is a giant rolling data warehouse. The vehicle becomes its own software stack and everything that you want to access is a piece of software. You have a physical good and every physical good has a digital service associated with it.
What are your thoughts on ownership of a car in the future versus a shared economy.
I think there are different categories of people and it's a combination of where they are in their life stage. If you think about car sharing services, they’re usually high in urban, dense cities. If I’m not in the suburbs, I may still own a vehicle because there's not enough volume or density of people to get the value out of it.
Also, if you look at who uses car sharing services and ride hailing services, it tends to be people in the 18 - 28 age range. As you start to get into the next stage of your life- for example you get married and have multiple children, you may now want a vehicle. It’s a combination of factors that will influence that decision. And then there are people that really just love to drive cars.
Finally, what are your thoughts on Silicon Valley and it’s ambitions to overtake the traditional automotive industry?
I think that there's a convergence happening and you can see that in what Ford has done with our investment in Argo AI. it's a convergence of the software world with the physical device world. It may have started with your home devices such as an IOT camera or a connected doorbell but you’re finding that convergence now happening in the automotive world.
When you think about having a virtual driver system, the software needs to talk to the vehicle and you need people that know how the vehicle operates. So you have the AI world coming to the physical world and converging. I don't think it’s a an either/or scenario, I think it's a combined effort. Ford has an office in Palo Alto and it’s getting the most out of those partnership, those relationships, the understanding, and the collaboration. It's everything from marrying the physical with the digital to new business models and new ways of looking at how you deliver products to market.
The interview above has beed edited for better readability. I'd like to Thank Laura and the team at Ford for arranging this interview