Cars are increasingly becoming electric and we're all wondering if autonomous vehicles will really take over the roads within the next decade. It's an exciting time for the transport industry but some car manufacturers will be understandably nervous. As the industry becomes more software-driven, traditional manufacturers run the risk of becoming a mere supplier of car shells as technology changes our cities and transport infrastructure.
I've asked several Ford project leads about the future of driving and always get the same answer: we're moving into a world where cars will be smart, connected, autonomous, and work with big data from connected city-wide systems. Ford aren't alone in making their cars autonomous but they certainly stand out when it comes to thinking about how we use transport.
Scoring your behaviour
At a London Tech Week panel on “Changing the way the world moves”, Ford continued to showcase experiments under their Smart Mobility Plan. It's not about making the next great car; it's about being a transport leader as technologies change how we commute and travel. The big reveal this week was their Driver Behaviour Project: an experiment that gives drivers a personal score based on their driving behaviour.
The score is calculated based on how you drive but also how you feel. Hardware in the car monitors both the handling of the car and also your eye movements, voice, facial expressions, and heart rate. All this data is brought together by an algorithm that gives you a driving score. The higher the score, the better you are at driving (“better” meaning safe and efficient as opposed to being a Mario Kart superstar).
While the data would obviously be useful to Ford's engineers and scientists, they claim the data belongs to the driver and is designed to empower them. A good driving score could result in discounts for car rental, insurance, or car-sharing services.
You check your score on a smartphone app, which feels similar to the empowerment and gamification that works well in fitness apps and might have the same effect on behaviour. Instead of helping lose weight or gain muscle, the driving score could help you make savings by becoming a better driver.
“Like an activity-tracking app that shows the distance we cover and calories we burn, a personal driver score encourages people to drive smarter,” said the project lead, Jonathan Scott. “We wanted to better understand how people use our products so we could help them to improve that behaviour – and a score, combined with guidance, makes it easier to improve.”
The London commute
The Driving Behaviour Project started with an 4-month experiment monitoring drivers in London. Volunteers drove over 40 Ford Fiestas around London for a total of 4,000 hours and 160,000 km. During this time, the drivers' eye movements and heart rate were recorded. A small device also collected data from the cars themselves such as speed, steering, braking, and combined the data with the time of the day, weather, and even the road history.
Steady acceleration and smooth steering results in a higher driving score. The smartphone app makes suggestions to help improve your driving such as staying in the correct gear while graphs show daily scores so drivers can figure out if they're better at driving on specific days. Perhaps the heavy traffic at certain times has an effect on your mood and driving behaviour.
The 4-month experiment was primarily to create the driving score algorithm but the science didn't stop there. Ford is now working with the University of Nottingham to study driving stress by monitoring drivers during difficult situations inside a driving simulator, which was also available to try at the London Tech Week event. The heart rate, eye movements, and brain imagery of volunteers were monitored during simulations of heavy traffic and when large vehicles block vision. These situations tend to make drivers more nervous and stressed. It's hoped that a better understanding of how driving affects us physically and emotionally can help us become better drivers.
Other Smart Mobility projects
The Driver Behaviour Project is just part of Ford's Smart Mobility vision at London Tech Week.
They also showed off several new services including GoPark, a smart parking system. With hardware plugged into participating vehicles, a probability-based algorithm will let drivers know the odds that there will be a free parking space at their chosen destination. Obviously this is the type of service that will only work if there are a lot of participating vehicles so Ford might want to implement this into all their future models if the demand is there.
Moving beyond what was seen at London Tech Week, Ford's vision for Smart Mobility is ambitious and other experiments include data-driven insurance, remote repositioning, car swaps, Info Cycle, and data-driven healthcare in remote areas of West Africa. Technology is changing driving and Smart Mobility is how Ford aims to drive change rather than adapt to it. They're already one of the leaders in autonomous driving with purpose-built cities for testing the vehicles and their current models can now read traffic signs and see around corners.
Over the next few years we should start to see more advances in car technology that rely on software as much as hardware. Just last month Ford invested $182.2 million in Pivotal, a cloud-based software company that will develop Ford's software and analytical tools for Smart Mobility experiments.
Ford wants to be ready should we choose to forgo owning our cars or even driving them ourselves. It's a future that might scare die-hard driving fans but they won't want to get too excited behind the wheel; it might affect their insurance policy.