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Ford, Nest, the Internet of Things: Can mobility merge with smart energy?

Driving isn’t what it used to be. Between shifting auto markets, mounting anxiety about carbon emissions and demographic megatrends such as global urbanization, the fundamental value proposition for automakers is changing.

From sensor-equipped connected cars wired to generate massive amounts of data to budding infrastructure for electric vehicles or ever-closer-to-market self-driving cars, auto hardware is evolving fast. On the other end of the spectrum, there's also new competition for the traditional model of personal car sales, most notably in the form of cash-rich, software-based ridesharing or carsharing companies.

The potential to reduce carbon emissions is massive for each technology: Big Data analytics could be employed to disincentivize driving at peak times; ridesharing could be leveraged to decrease solo driver trips; new "last-mile" solutions could be implemented to bridge the enduring gaps between cars and public transit.

Still, huge obstacles remain to realize any of that potential at scale. Data privacy and security, evolving regulatory frameworks and safety when employing technology on the road are all moving targets.

The common denominator to help connect the dots between all of these disparate developments: Data.

“It’s all gonna be about how we all can share data, and how we can do that in a productive and private way," Mike Tinskey, Ford Motor Co.'s global director of electrification and infrastructure, told GreenBiz.

Increasing connectivity opens the door not only for vehicle-to-vehicle communication that could cut down on traffic, but really for a new array of vehicle-to-you-name-it communications. Cars increasingly are integrated with smartphones and cloud entertainment systems, but it's not hard to imagine a scenario where everything from consumer electronics such as wearable devices to "smart city" infrastructure are somehow connected to our cars.

“That’s sort of a limitless point once everything is connected," Tinskey said, deeming such a scenario “sort of the nirvana of the Internet of Things.”

Ford's new target in that realm happens to be another field undergoing fundamental changes in delivery models — energy, and not in the way you might expect for a car company.

Smart transportation, smart energy

To jockey for position in the crowded and fast-moving mobility market, Ford last week opened a new 25,000 square foot research center in the Silicon Valley tech hub of Palo Alto.

The facility with capacity for up to 125 employees — an outgrowth of a small, software-focused research group that Ford previously maintained just down the street from Stanford University — is just miles from the headquarters of Tesla Motor Co. and similar R&D outposts for automakers such as BMW, Mercedes-Benz, Volkswagen and Nissan.

“It’s a completely accelerated and much grander plan for the Silicon Valley,” Tinskey said. "The purpose of the lab is really to focus on all of the emerging technologies we’re seeing. That includes things like data, apps, mobility, connectivity and autonomous.”

Aside from keeping pace with the competition, the new facility is designed to give Ford better access to Silicon Valley-based startups and tech companies, such as Google-owned smart thermostat company Nest. Just as Ford's rivals have experimented with auto applications for consumer gadgets such as Google Glass and smart watches, the American auto giant is partnering with Nest on a new research project designed to bridge the home and the car.

Tinskey gives the example of a dual Ford and Nest customer just leaving the gym. A Ford car equipped with sensors theoretically would be able to pick up on an increased metabolism after a workout, then send a message to a smart thermostat to cool down the home just before the user gets there. Alternatively, a Nest alert about a carbon monoxide leak or smoke detector signal could be sent directly to the car, giving the user the option to call 911 or an emergency contact.

While how much energy that would save depends on how users power their homes and cars, Tinskey said the real priority for the time being is determining whether the market for such tools even exists.

“It’s more of a lifestyle learning,” Tinskey said. “It’s trying to understand what the customer wants.”

Driving cleaner

The same type of machine-to-machine communication that Ford and Nest are experimenting with also could be mimicked in other high-tech interactions, such as new forms of mass transit.

“We’re experimenting with a bus that can deviate from a set route,” Tinskey said of a Ford pilot project in London. To help cover a wider geographic footprint, users can contact the bus through “an Uber-like (smartphone) application,” he added.

Parking is another perennial transportation issue that automakers are eyeing for new market opportunities.  Connected cars could use databases that catalog open parking spots to find spaces faster.

"The whole hunting thing," Tinskey said of the estimated 30 percent of urban emissions linked to inefficient driving to find a parking spot, "it’s just an astronomical number."

New data tools aside, self-service valets — or cars that drop off their owner and go park themselves — are another more futuristic possibility in the early research stage, Tinskey said.

Stanford University, a pioneer in the realm of self-driving cars, has been enlisted to help Ford hone software and algorithms that could help get the vehicles to market, especially amid competition from the likes of Nissan’s nearby autonomous vehicle lab and non-auto companies such as Google.

Again, the familiar question with autonomous vehicles is what the upshot is for sustainability.

A survey of cars on the road today, and even cars used in ridesharing and car sharing, run the gamut from smart cars, plug-in electric vehicles and hybrids to huge SUVs or dated models with high emissions levels. The idealized vision of a future full of self-guided vehicles usually doesn't include huge clouds of exhaust, but it’s still not clear what autonomous vehicles might mean really for emissions.

Tinksey predicts a melding of cleaner cars and new technology.

“If you think about autonomous being high tech, and you think about plug-in or electric vehicles being high tech, you’re probably thinking about a convergence of the two,” he said. “It’s no surprise that Google’s autonomous vehicle is electric.”

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