Robots? Flying cars? No drivers? Ford Australia's boss predicts the future | Q&A

30 March 2017
 by 
, CarsGuide

This week's Future with Ford conference gave us a bit of a glimpse into how we could be getting around in the 'World of Tomorrow'.

Inspired by Ford's recent announcement that it will have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021, we asked the company's Aussie chief Graeme Whickman 21 questions about the future... because 2021 questions would just be silly.

RB: I get a bit sceptical about 'World of Tomorrow' discussions. I mean 2021 is only four years away, I remember four years ago it was just like today but without Donald Trump. Are we being overly optimistic we're not really going to have fully autonomous cars on the road by 2021 are we?

GW: What we've said is that we'll have a fully autonomous vehicle. No gas pedal, no brake pedal no steering wheel by 2021. It will be a commercially available and our vision is that it will probably fit into the ride-hailing ride-sharing space.

RB: So no accelerator or brake pedal, and no steering wheel. Will there be a robot driver? Or at least one of those fun-park clowns that you put balls in the mouth of?

GW: It sounds like a scene out of Total Recall. I'm not sure we're in that space. No pedals or a steering wheel presents a challenge for us in terms of what is the human interaction and how do you give confidence and trust to the people in the vehicle – that's work which is to be done.

RB: Why ride sharing?

GW: We think ride sharing is the most viable application of an autonomous vehicle in that time frame. The one that has the biggest impact and move the needle the most. And the one that is the commercially appropriate as well.

We see a future that involves people who haven't been able to access mobility solutions in the past.

RB: But come on, there will be a Ford autonomous vehicle we'd be able to walk into a dealership and buy at some point right?

GW: As we progress further and further into the provision of mobility services you would assume there are other applications all the way through to the individual. It is logical to suggest there are greater applications for autonomous vehicles.

RB: What about for people who love driving – the enthusiast? Imagine an autonomous Mustang – that'd suck.

GW: Well I have a personal opinion that there will continue to be people who are motoring enthusiasts and will want the interaction with the vehicle. Equally there will be people who are less inclined to interact with a vehicle or love a vehicle but have a love of a mobility solution and I would hope that we could cater for both.

RB: What's so good about autonomous vehicles?

GW: We see an opportunity at a genuine level to make people's lives better through mobility. And we see a future that involves people who haven't been able to access mobility solutions in the past and we genuinely hope and plan for our contribution to be impactful to other parts of society that we don't touch now.

There is a great opportunity to help individuals who have been put by the wayside with mobility solutions – people who are visually challenged, people who have reached an age where they hand their keys back and so on...

RB: Aww... now you've made me feel bad. So will autonomous vehicles be the most significant changes we'll see to the car world in the next few years?

GW: Autonomous vehicles and service provision around mobility. Those are the biggest things that you are going to see in the next three for five years.

Ford plans to mass produce a fully autonomous vehicle for car-sharing by 2021.Ford plans to mass produce a fully autonomous vehicle for car-sharing by 2021.

RB: Tesla says that every car that rolls out of its factory is now fully autonomous, but we haven't seen anything more advanced than AEB on a Ford you can buy. Is Ford hiding something in its version of Area 51?

GW: We started talking about autonomous vehicles and mobility almost a decade ago. So we've been working pretty hard for a longish period of time. We have one of the biggest fleets of autonomous test vehicles on the road right now. We're quietly working in the background on the plan we've announced and there a substantial body of work that will come to fruition in the timeframe.

RB: What would Henry Ford say? Would he approve of what the company is doing with autonomous cars?

GW: I think as one of the greatest disruptive innovators in mankind I think he would not only approve or not even indorse, but he would encourage the pursuit of the journey we are on because it is directly tied to his DNA – he'd be excited and he'd be pushing us hard to get there faster.

RB: Could you see a Ford autonomous Highway Patrol police car in the future?

GW: I couldn't see it in the short to medium term – the human interaction is still important.

RB: You told us today that Ford is working on autonomous delivery tech. Are we talking drones, driverless trucks, help me out here?

GW: We're in the ideation stage. It's clear that autonomous vehicles represent a great opportunity for freight, distribution and delivery. We see it on the horizon.

 I don't see a world where there are no vehicles I see a world where vehicles and associated services become more attainable to a wider volume of people.

RB:  Now the e-scooter? It lives in the boot of your car and you take it out to go the rest of the way once you've parked. Are you serious? Who's so lazy that they can't walk from the car to the supermarket?

GW: Come, on you're being too tough. I think it's a really cool concept. Say you're a commuter and you can only park two kays away from work, you may also have a knee issue or a health challenge. You don't have to be captive to the car parking dramas that you face in cities. I think it's a novel solution.

RB: Do you think there will come a time when making and selling cars isn't your core business?

GW: We want to be an automotive and mobility company. We see a great benefit to society, to consumers and to our shareholders as well. Congestion is increasing, population is increasing, driver age is increasing, and the longevity of life is increasing.

No I don't see a world where there are no vehicles I see a world where vehicles and associated services become more attainable to a wider volume of people but at the same time deal with some of the societal challenges that we face like congestion and accidents – 90 per cent of accidents are caused by human error.

RB:    Can you see a time where driver cars could be banned from the road for safety reasons because they don't have any autonomous tech?

GW: That's a really challenging question. I can't crystal ball gaze that. How a government could ban them – I'm not sure I see it panning out that way, but never say never.

RB:    The combustion engine – are we seeing the last days of it? Could it be banned?

GW: There is some talk in some countries around regulating the volume of internal combustion engines.  The German government was recently debating whether at a certain point of time whether the combustion engine should still be there. I don't see the combustion engine disappearing in the short term at all, and I see greater investment to make sure those engine live up to lower emissions and better fuel economy couple with electric vehicles.

RB: Is there anything about the future you haven't considered?

GW: (Laughs) There are plenty of things we haven't considered because the future is very hard to predict.

RB: OK, let me put it like this: Are the robots going to turn on us?

GW: (Laughs) I think you may have been watching the Terminator too much.

Our concentration is getting an autonomous vehicle pretty quickly. Flying cars might be one for the future but we're not sure about that yet.

RB:  Honda has Asimo. Will we see a Ford robot?

GW: Our efforts are around making sure that we've got tangible evidence and delivery of things that will do things for customers.

RB: Slack to Asimo! Can I suggest a name for a Ford robot?

GW: What?

RB: Henry.

GW: (laughs)

RB: Do it.

RB:  We heard Sheryl Connelly talk to today – she's Ford's in-house futurist. How do I get that job?

GW: You have to be a good listener and good assimilator, somebody who understands how to challenge convention. She's the polite contrarian in our organisation.

RB:  So it's 2017, Graeme. Where's my flying car?

GW: (Laughs) Our concentration is getting an autonomous vehicle pretty quickly. Flying cars might be one for the future but we're not sure about that yet. But be warned the world is changing at a great rate of knots.

What's your vision of the automotive future? Can you see through time? Tell us what you think in the comments below.

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