Love is the Key to the Automated, Data-Driven Future of Mobility

Future Of Mobility

Artificial intelligence will capture your heart. It knows how.

Admit it: There are things you love. A handbag with a rich, patinaed finish that’s so well organized you can always find your lipstick. A robotic vacuum that cleans your floors while you’re at your tennis lesson. A thermostat that learns your schedule and turns off the A/C when you forget to.

We fall in love with these things, but how did designers know we would? One answer might be that they are like us and understand us. But that would be too easy.

Frankly, the comings and goings of even a large family might be easy for Nest to anticipate. But how about a city of millions of people? If you’ve ever tried to get on the subway or hail a taxi at rush hour, you know it’s not easy to plan for people’s travel needs, even when you know everyone is leaving work at 5 o’clock. That is the challenge for the future of mobility.

Wouldn’t it be nice to walk outside your building at rush hour and step right in to a waiting car that whisks you away to your destination in a constant flow of moving traffic? Or hop onto a shuttle with 15 other strangers who are all going the same place as you? That’s the challenge that is remaking Ford, which sees itself as a mobility company, not just a car company.

Understanding our mobility needs is the key to Ford’s future.

Convenience is not enough. It takes love to get people to adapt

Just because something is good for us, even convenient, doesn’t make us love it. Otherwise we would all ‘love’ kale.

The key to ensuring that consumers fall in love with new things is to help them develop an “everlasting infatuation with it,” says Sheryl Connelly, Ford’s in-house futurist. “Marketers know how to stoke the flames, keep it powerful.” Uber (and its $60+ billion valuation) is built on love: You know it will be there for you, that it’ll be reliable, its technology side predicts what you’ll want and its human side provides the service. Uber’s technology acts more like a human and its humans all have a technology-like reliability.

This idea of technology acting more like humans was expressed several yeas ago at Ford’s trend conference when Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak was asked what he thought the ideal future function would be in cars. His answer? Navigation that works as if someone was sitting in the seat next to you. Technology that acts like humans? Enough to make you fall in love.

Seriously, machines will function like humans…here’s how

Ford Future Of Mobility

How data will function to make mobility more intuitive and efficient. Photo: Scotty Reiss

It’s not just a simple matter of telling machines to do things the way we do. Author Kenneth Cukier describes in a TED talk how IBM trained Watson to win at Jeopardy. “We can throw data at the problem and tell the computer to figure it out,” he said. Keep throwing in more data, and the accuracy of its prediction increases; this leads to machine learning and then, artificial intelligence.

“AI allows us to layer meaning in ways we couldn’t before,” said Tim Brown, CEO of IDEO, the design company with the mission of creating positive impact through design. This will lead to “relationships with Alexa and Siri in our vehicles” as well as our homes and devices, he said. “Machine learning allows feedback; it’s sort of how we interact and develop relationships among ourselves,” Tim told us.

I’m wearing a skirt today so clearly, I’m not riding a bike to work

Ford Future Of Mobility

Ford’s Sheryl Connelly and Jim Hackett chat with IDEO CEO Tim Brown about how data will shape our future. Photo: Scotty Reiss

And Ford knows that. OK, maybe not specifically that you are wearing a skirt, but its systems can identify your travel plan points and better understand your choices. Ford will learn that when you have a meeting in the Financial District or dinner plans in The Pearl, (hence, the skirt and heels), you never choose to ride a bike there even though that’s the fastest, most efficient way to get there.

The goal is to collect data along your journey and from all sources: it’ll collect data from Ford’s MoDe:Me bicycle program, to shuttles and autonomous cars. The system wants to know where you want to go so it can calculate the best options and then provide them.

Love worthy: Understanding how people travel to fix an inefficient system

The idea is to help individuals and the transportation grid be more efficient, from how people use and own cars to shared cars and shared rides. “Vehicles sit on top of the transportation grid,” said Jim Hackett, chairman of Ford Smart Mobility. The ‘grid’ combines streets, highways, traffic signals, rail lines and bike lanes, as well as cars, buses, subways, bikes and more. Even though it’s all supposed to work together, it’s flawed. “We would not stand for the electrical grid not working, but we sit in traffic—so we stand for the transportation grid to not work.” How can we fix this?

“We want to understand people’s needs, how they move around,” Tim told us. “Our parents went through our community the same way every day, and there was only one way: the car. Today we have lots of choices and information: is the train on time? Is traffic bad? Waze is an early version” of knowing this, but there will be many more, he said. Ford’s mission is, through machine learning and AI, to understand these options and build systems that respond to your immediate needs.

Asking tough questions to get easy answers

Ford Future Of Mobility

Ford’s Chariot shuttle service is part of its future mobility plan. Photo: Ford

It might seem simple that the most efficient way to get 15 people across town is to put them on the shame shuttle bus, right? But finding those 15 people, coordinating, communicating and ensuring they show up is a challenge. And predicting this on a minute by minute basis so you can accommodate everyone sounds impossible.

Ford’s goal is to understand and build systems that can do this. Ford created a new division called Greenfield Labs and put Erica Klampfl, who captained the MoDe:Me program, in charge. Her challenge is to understand the opportunities and anticipate and navigate the challenges; to create the multitudes of data and sort through it to understand where the answers are. What will make people feel comfortable? What will people want and need? What will make them fall in love with their choices?

Dynamic Shuttle: Your Chariot has arrived, and it knows where your want to go

Among the next programs Ford is testing is what they call the ‘dynamic shuttle.’ Dynamic shuttles operate based on user input: where do people want to go? What journey or path makes the most sense? What can shuttles do when not driving people around—can they deliver goods or services? Ford recently purchased San Francisco’s Chariot shuttle service as a way of jumping in, both providing transportation and collecting user information to make the service even more efficient.

Which is the point of learning and design? “If you think of design in a fundamental way, it’s about shaping the world to meet our needs, understand the journey of peoples lives, and to know where the moments are that you can make a difference,” says Tim.

And that is something you can really, truly love.

Disclosure: I was a guest of Ford’s Further with Ford conference; travel and accommodations were provided. Any opinions, viewpoints and additional research are all my own. 

Journalist, entrepreneur and mom. Expertise includes new cars, family cars, 3-row SUVs, child passenger car seats and automotive careers... More about Scotty Reiss