since I just moved this thread to the SYNCophant/autonoMOUSEy section,
thought it'd be good to add this NYT-'textbook'(length) article:
Can Ford Turn Itself Into a TECH Company?
ON A SUNNY afternoon in early October, I drove across a parking lot in Ann Arbor, Mich., and down a sloping road to a second, private lot. A fence lining the lot’s perimeter was covered in black fabric, as if to deter snoops. Behind it was a 32-acre Potemkin village. There were paved roads with names and signs: Liberty Street, Main Street, Wolverine Avenue. There was a traffic roundabout, a covered underpass and a railroad crossing. There were cosmetic props, too — newspaper boxes, sidewalk benches, a row of fake storefronts.
Mcity, as the facility is known, was built by the University of Michigan as a testing ground for automakers, including Ford, which has been experimenting with self-driving cars here for about two years. I parked my rental and climbed into the back of a white Ford Fusion with four spinning Lidar sensors on the roof, each roughly the size of a water glass, and a rack of high-performance computers in the trunk. Next to me sat Randy Visintainer, Ford’s director of autonomous vehicle development. Jakob Hoellerbauer, a young Ford engineer, took the driver’s seat. Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist, sat beside him in the passenger seat typing on a laptop. We put on our seatbelts, and Hoellerbauer hit the ignition and pulled into the road. A beep came from the dashboard, indicating that the car was ready to engage self-driving mode. Hoellerbauer pushed a button on the steering wheel and took his hands away.
“We are now autonomous,” Williams announced.
The car glided along Main Street to a four-way stop, waited for another car (driven by a researcher) to clear the intersection, then made a gentle right turn. Autonomous cars are programmed to drive conservatively, and any time our Fusion sensed an approaching object — like a Ford employee, role-playing an oblivious pedestrian — it slowed down until it was sure the path was clear, then proceeded cautiously. It felt like being chauffeured by an elderly ghost.
Two minutes into the drive, the car pulled around a traffic circle and up to a blinking red light at an empty intersection. It stopped. A few seconds passed. Perhaps, I thought, it was just being characteristically risk-averse. Then a few more seconds passed, and the engineers started to look nervous. Williams squinted at his laptop.
“So right now, we’re not sure if the intersection is clear, so we’re being very cautious,” Williams said, speaking for the car. “It’s expecting ...” He trailed off and turned to Hoellerbauer. “Why don’t you just overtake it?” Hoellerbauer grabbed the wheel and tapped the gas pedal, overriding the self-driving system and manually steering us through the intersection.
“We didn’t see that happen this morning,” Williams explained, by way of an apology. We took another lap around Mcity, and when we reached the intersection again, the car did the exact same thing.
Self-driving cars raise the specter of horrific malfunctions — a code glitch that sends a car careering off a cliff, a remote hack that disables the brakes — but perfectly innocuous problems like the one we experienced will be far more common, and no less an impediment to road-readiness. There are dozens of autonomous vehicles being tested all over the world — 43 companies are testing 295 different self-driving vehicles in California alone — and not one of them has a clean record. A self-driving Uber vehicle zoomed through a red light in San Francisco last year. The sensors on cars used by Waymo, the self-driving-car division of Alphabet, Google’s corporate parent, have struggled in heavy rain and snow. I’ve had half a dozen self-driving-car experiences in my life, including a white-knuckle trip down Manhattan’s West Side Highway in a Tesla Model X whose owner had set it to “autopilot” mode, and I wouldn’t describe any of them as relaxing.
How quickly these rides will improve depends on whom you ask. Silicon Valley futurists, in typically sanguine fashion, predict that we are months, not years, away from a Cambrian explosion of autonomous cars. Waymo has a pilot program for its self-driving vehicles already underway in Arizona and says it’s “really close” to being fully operational. Lyft, which has partnered with a start-up called Drive.ai, is aiming to have a fleet of self-driving cars operating in the Bay Area by the end of the year. And Elon Musk, the founder of Tesla, which has offered semiautonomous features since 2015, has suggested that its cars could be fully autonomous as soon as 2019.
But that’s California, where optimism is the coin of the realm. In Detroit, the timeline looks slower and more incremental. Ford, in particular, believes that the first generation of driverless cars will be limited, capable of traveling only in commercial fleets inside carefully plotted urban areas. Other cars will simply get smarter without being autonomous, with features like collision prevention and self-parking becoming more common. Self-driving technology will eventually be more sophisticated and will one day be capable of full door-to-door autonomy in every possible area and condition, but as Ford sees it, that’s not going to happen overnight, or even very soon.
Despite its pragmatic restraint, Ford has invested hundreds of millions in self-driving cars and is making surprising progress. In a report earlier this year, Navigant Research placed Ford at the top of its leader board, ahead of tech companies like Waymo and Uber as well as auto rivals like GM and Toyota, based on Ford’s advanced manufacturing capabilities coupled with its strides in software development. The report generated headlines like, “Detroit Is Kicking Silicon Valley’s Ass in the Race to Build Self-Driving Cars,” and delivered a morale boost to Ford, which showed up late but finally felt as if it had a chance.
'Every new technology, the science and the engineering of it, has to give way to human understanding and use.'
Ford’s big, blinking target is 2021 — the year it hopes to release a vehicle that meets the Society of Automotive Engineers International’s definition of Level 4 autonomy (no human operator required in the area and conditions it’s programmed for). It’s a tough deadline for a company whose culture might be the exact opposite of Silicon Valley’s, where companies release half-finished “minimum viable products” and abide by maxims like “move fast and break things.” Before Ford — or any conventional automaker — produces anything, each part has to pass a grueling battery of tests and certifications. There is a reason “automotive grade” has become a synonym for “reliable.” “Our vehicles have to be a trusted product,” Chris Brewer, Ford’s chief engineer for autonomous vehicles, told me. “That is a little more important than ‘Did my phone freeze or not?’ ”
Americans are wary of driverless cars — 56 percent, according to the Pew Research Center, would prefer not to ride in one — and when I talked to Brewer, it occurred to me that some part of that hesitation might stem from who we assume will be producing them: Silicon Valley tech giants, the same stateless behemoths that have spent the last few decades barging into old-line industries like the Kool-Aid Man, destroying working-class jobs and leaving behind cold, modern efficiency. But maybe these skeptics could be persuaded to trust Detroit. After all, Brewer is right — self-driving cars aren’t smartphones. They’re two-ton projectiles that take your parents to the grocery store and your kids to soccer practice, that will need to make billions of computational decisions per second while moving at 65 miles per hour, that contain within them the power to extinguish human life. You kind of want them to take a while.
Leading Ford into this weird new era is Jim Hackett, who was named chief executive in May. Hackett, 62, is an oddity by Detroit standards. A design-minded aesthete in an industry dominated by gearheads and number crunchers, he spent two decades running Steelcase, a Michigan-based office-furniture company whose designers are often credited with — or blamed for — popularizing the open-plan office trend.
At a conference several years ago, Hackett struck up a conversation with Ford’s executive chairman, William Clay Ford Jr., who goes by Bill. He is the great-grandson of Henry Ford, and another auto-world misfit — an outspoken environmentalist who once ruffled feathers at Ford by speaking at a Greenpeace event. The two bonded over their shared vision of “smart mobility,” a fuzzy term, more common among urbanists than businesspeople, for creating a sort of harmony among land use, technology and transportation of all forms. Hackett joined Ford’s board of directors in 2013. In 2016, Bill Ford persuaded Hackett to lead Ford’s newly created smart-mobility unit, and about a year later, he tapped him to run the entire company.
Hackett’s jockish C.V. — he played football at Michigan and briefly ran the school’s athletic department — masks his high-minded streak, which can make talking to him feel like taking a college philosophy seminar after a few bong rips. In the early 2000s, he began traveling to the Santa Fe Institute, a research group started by prominent scientists who wanted to study “complex adaptive systems” — a branch of theoretical physics that imagines the world as a series of complicated networks that are governed by universal laws and patterns, the same way biology is guided by Darwinian evolution. The rules that explained how anthills formed, they believed, might also explain urbanization trends in Southeast Asia or predict economic cycles. It was a formative experience for Hackett, who began to believe that businesses were governed by universal laws, too.
Hackett also became obsessed with “design thinking,” a new-agey management philosophy that has become trendy in recent years. Adherents believe that instead of optimizing for profit, organizations should put human emotion at the center of every strategy decision and begin by empathizing with their customers. “No technology ever evolves without the human interpreting and altering it,” Hackett says. “Every new technology, the science and the engineering of it, has to give way to human understanding and use.”
Hackett is only six months into the chief-executive job, but his mannerisms have already entered Ford’s bloodstream. I arrived in Dearborn expecting to talk about drivetrains and crankshafts, but in a series of interviews with nearly a dozen executives, barely anyone mentioned cars or trucks at all. Instead, I heard the Ford Motor Company described as a “mobility solutions provider” that engages in “multimodal journey planning.” People spoke about “whiteboarding” and “blue-skying” big ideas. I watched a video that described Ford’s efforts to build a “holistic, organic, interconnected system powered by a transportation operating system.”
It is bizarre to watch an all-American manufacturing company get brain-snatched like this. Even the company’s new internal mission statement bears Hackett’s woolly imprint: “To become the world’s most trusted mobility company by designing smart vehicles for a smart world.” It’s not exactly “Built Ford Tough.” But it’s very much in keeping with Hackett’s worldview, in which everything exists in connection with everything else, and changing one piece of a system necessarily changes the whole. A car learns to drive itself, and a city’s transportation grid shifts around it.
This kind of big-picture futurism is necessary in Detroit today, where automakers are frantically reinventing themselves to stay ahead of what they fear might be coming. The average personal vehicle is driven less than an hour per day. But self-driving cars can, in theory, pick up and drop off passengers all day, which significantly reduces the number of cars a community needs. (Researchers at the University of Michigan estimate that autonomous vehicles could cause car ownership to drop by as much as 43 percent. Lyft, which has a horse in the race, cites research estimating that as many as 80 percent of cars could eventually be eliminated.) And because much of the value of self-driving cars lies in the software that runs them, companies that make only hardware — known in the business as “original equipment manufacturers,” or O.E.M.s — are likely to be squeezed, or worse.
Faced with visions of a bleak future as low-margin widget-builders for Silicon Valley, automakers have spent the past several years trying to catch up. General Motors spent $581 million to buy Cruise Automation, a self-driving-technology start-up. Fiat Chrysler Automobiles struck a deal with Waymo, in addition to partnering with BMW and Intel. Daimler and Volvo each joined with Uber, and Toyota set up a whole research institute in Silicon Valley to build its own self-driving vehicles.
One lesson Hackett learned from his studies is that in order to stay competitive, businesses often have to give up the things that made them great in the first place.
Ford’s plans might be the most ambitious. It wants to have a hand in every part of the self-driving-car industry, including the software that replaces the human driver, the platform that connects and controls the cars and the services that spring up around them. To that end, Ford has spent the past several years quietly snapping up tech talent. It struck a partnership with Lyft and acquired Chariot, a San Francisco-based start-up that runs group shuttles for commuters. It set up an office in Palo Alto that now has 205 employees and created Greenfield Labs, a business incubator. It invested in Argo AI, a Pittsburgh-based artificial-intelligence start-up, and several other companies, including Velodyne, which makes Lidar sensors, and a connected-car software outfit called Autonomic.
Most industry observers believe these are the right moves for Ford to be making. But it’s still tough to reconcile today’s Ford — which makes money by selling millions of combustion-engine trucks and S.U.V.s every year, along with a handful of sedans and hybrids — with the eco-tech-mobility conglomerate Hackett envisions it becoming. One lesson Hackett learned from his studies is that in order to stay competitive, businesses often have to give up the things that made them great in the first place. (He calls this the “perversity law.”) I asked him if this meant that Ford would need to stop manufacturing conventional, gas-powered vehicles to survive.
“Well, part of that statement might be right,” he said. “Right now, that doesn’t make sense.” He clarified, sort of: “I’m really just trying to say the better form of problem solving is to abstract the problems.”
So let’s try abstracting Ford’s problems, to see how they might be solved. First: Ford was born at the beginning of a now-outmoded era of industrial production, one that it arguably ushered in. Back then, companies like Ford simply manufactured goods, and customers bought them. Those transactions represented a change of ownership — a customer who bought a car from Ford was free to install 15-inch subwoofers in it, or paint it bright yellow, or use it in a demolition derby — and they were typically one-time sales. Ford’s responsibility for the car, and its opportunity to make a profit, ended the minute the warranty ran out.
The internet changed that, by allowing companies to wrap physical goods in digital services that can be sold again and again, at much higher margins. Instead of selling servers to corporate I.T. departments, Amazon sells them time shares on a centralized server farm; instead of buying pricey home solar panels, customers can lease them from a solar service, paying for only the power they use. Makers of thermostats, baby monitors and other household gadgets “extend the value chain” by charging customers a monthly fee for information about their home energy use or their babies’ sleep patterns. Even the language these new enterprises use is different. Goods-based businesses spoke in terms of revenues and profits. Service-based businesses count metrics like “churn,” “average revenue per user” and “lifetime value” — the total amount of money they can wring from a customer...
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I give up - not SURE this article ever ends