Paul Mascarenas: Brave new motorworld where cars talk to cars

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Ford Motor Company founder Henry Ford once wrote that consumers can pick any colour “so long as it is black”. How things change.

Today, you can get pretty much any colour you want when selecting your vehicle, while the technology options outstrip anything even our imaginative founder could have envisioned.

In fact, carmakers are being increasingly recognised as technology companies – thanks to the advanced equipment we create to make life easier for drivers and passengers. In my role I oversee the development of some incredibly smart inventions and witness first-hand how they improve the consumer experience.

In terms of furthering our connectivity offering, though, we are at a crossroads. Our company was recently at Mobile World Congress, where executive chairman Bill Ford outlined his vision for a global transportation network that utilises communication between vehicles, transport infrastructure and individual mobile devices.

Why is this necessary? Well, the number of cars on the world’s roads is forecast to grow from one billion now to around four billion by mid-century. This puts us in danger of global gridlock – a “never-ending traffic jam” – which has the potential to waste time, energy and resource to a new scale. The solution? As you may have guessed, technology is at the epicentre, with cross-industry partnerships facilitating more connected highways.

Carmakers and telecoms specialists must align so that we create an interconnected system where intelligent vehicles talk to one another and to the infrastructure. Only through such efforts can we put ourselves in a position to challenge and overcome a system currently headed towards gridlock.

Ford’s presence at Mobile World Congress underlines our ambitions in this area, while examples of the mobility solutions we are working on include vehicle-to-vehicle warning systems at our advanced research facility in Germany and defining new vehicle ownership models through collaboration with car sharing service Zipcar.

It’s not just about the future, though. Car manufacturers are launching technology solutions that solve the needs of consumers here and now.

Today’s people are more socially connected than ever – we all have smartphones and many of us are active on Facebook and Twitter.

The challenge from an engineer’s point of view is maintaining in-car connectivity while keeping vehicle occupants safe.

By launching SYNC in the new B-MAX and in the Focus this year, Ford will go some way to overcoming this challenge. SYNC will read aloud text messages from a paired smartphone, while in coming years there will be the option to update your social media platforms via voice control.

Consumers will also be able to operate other functions via voice command; you can change the music playing on your iPod by talking aloud; change the temperature by speaking to the car; and find a nearby Italian restaurant by asking the sat-nav.

The Knight Rider link is clear, but this is not action TV – it gives the driver what they want while keeping them safe, by keeping their eyes on the road and their hands on the wheel.

There’s plenty more, too – a feature called Emergency Assistance dials the local emergency services for you in the event of an accident – while Active Park Assist uses sensors to steer your vehicle into a tight parking spot so you don’t have to. Our engineers have also come up with a way to create a “rolling wi-fi hub” so that kids can surf the web in the back while adult passengers download local weather forecasts.

Beyond that, we have also created a concept car that explores cloud connectivity. In the future we could see a car connected to your daily life that can pre-book you a parking space and direct you straight to it or a car that knows what radio station is playing in your house and continues the stream inside the vehicle.

This is only the beginning and there’s much more to come. Watch this space.

• Paul Mascarenas is Ford’s chief technical officer.