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Autonomous VehiclesNew TechNewsTop Stories

GSCW keynote: Ford CTO says auto industry at ‘inflection point’ with electrification

Convergence of connectivity, digital services to reshape customer relationships, Washington says at FreightWaves’ Global Supply Chain Week

The American automotive industry will benefit from an extraordinary conference of technological advancements that will elevate customer relationships and revenue streams to levels that would have been unimaginable five years ago, Ken Washington, Ford Motor Co.’s (NYSE:F) chief technology officer, said Thursday during FreightWaves’ Global Supply Chain Week.

Keynoting the event’s fourth day, Washington said that Ford and its fellow manufacturers are at an “inflection point” of vehicle electrification as battery prices continue their steady decline and make EVs more affordable than ever. Ford is “all in” on electric vehicle (EV) development, Washington told FreightWaves Founder and CEO Craig Fuller on a Fuller Speed Ahead segment. Along with the fuel savings and sustainability benefits, EVs are fun to drive, Washington said. “Once you drive an electric vehicle, you never go back.” 

The traditional internal combustion engine still has a role to play in Ford’s strategy, but the legacy power source will be optimized for certain sectors of its mobility portfolio, Washington said.

Beyond EVs, the auto industry is being catalyzed by gains in connectivity capabilities that will not only enhance the customer experience but provide Ford and other automakers with rich insight into customer behavior that will foster the development of even better services, Washington said.

“We are at a moment in time when connectivity and digital services will open up long-lasting and profitable relationships with customers,” Washington said. This, in turn, will build new value streams for automakers, he said.

These new digital relationships will run the gamut from vehicle purchases to repair and service, said Washington.

Southeast Michigan remains the “beating heart” of Ford’s technological innovation efforts, Washington said. He added that Ford has “deep partnerships” with high-tech companies worldwide and that it runs research labs in California’s Silicon Valley, Israel and China, all hotbeds of innovation.

One area in which hype has exceeded reality is in autonomous vehicles, Washington said. “A lot of the noise and hype around autonomy has faded into the background,” he told Fuller, noting that full point-to-point autonomy is a “hard issue” that will need to be addressed gradually and over a period of years.

Ford hopes to roll out some services related to point-to-point autonomy sometime in 2022, Washington said. The research conducted into autonomous vehicles has not gone for naught, as it has helped spawn innovations in sensor development and driver-assist technology, he said.

Like all automakers, Ford is coping with a global shortage of semiconductors needed to power its new and next-generation vehicles. “We are managing our way through” the dearth of supply, he said, adding that it “doesn’t change the way we design our products.”

Asked by Fuller what he expects the auto industry to look like five years from now, Washington didn’t provide specifics but pointed to all of the present-day advancements that couldn’t have been conceived of in 2016. Among them is the notion that Ford would be positioned as a service and experience company as well as an automaker. “There’s not going to be any shortage of surprises” between now and 2026, he said.

Washington agreed with Fuller that the auto industry’s warp-speed evolution has made for a noisy environment. However, he and his team pay attention to the noise because there are usually valuable “signals” embedded in the maelstrom.

Mark Solomon

Formerly the Executive Editor at DC Velocity, Mark Solomon joined FreightWaves as Managing Editor of Freight Markets. Solomon began his journalistic career in 1982 at Traffic World magazine, ran his own public relations firm (Media Based Solutions) from 1994 to 2008, and has been at DC Velocity since then. Over the course of his career, Solomon has covered nearly the whole gamut of the transportation and logistics industry, including trucking, railroads, maritime, 3PLs, and regulatory issues. Solomon witnessed and narrated the rise of Amazon and XPO Logistics and the shift of the U.S. Postal Service from a mail-focused service to parcel, as well as the exponential, e-commerce-driven growth of warehouse square footage and omnichannel fulfillment.

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