Self-driving, smart-parking and owned by no-one: Ford's car of the future

Paul Mascarenas, the motoring giant's Chief Technical Officer, tells us what we'll be driving (or what we'll be sitting in while it drives itself) in ten years' time.
Paul Mascarenas Ford

As one of the people in charge of Research and Innovation at the company that practically created modern manufacturing, Paul Mascarenas knows a thing or two about what the future of driving may hold. We caught up with Paul at MWC last week to ask him how long it'll be before your Fiesta becomes self-aware...

global gridlock

Ford self-driving car

For giant multinantional companies like Ford, the big issues facing the world are also profit-or-loss issues, so Paul and his team are busy predicting what the next few decades hold for humanity. 

"We study macro-level societal and economic trends," says Paul, "and for us, one of the biggest factors is population growth. At the moment there’s about seven billion people in the world, and and over the next few decades that’ll grow to around nine billion. There'll be ecomonic growth, too, which is great news – new economies are starting to emerge, not just the Asian economies but in the Middle East and Africa, where people are able to buy a car now for the first time. When we look at the number of vehicles being used, there’s about one billion vehicles in use today. At a conservative estimate, that grows to two to four billion by the middle of the century."

Four billion cars.

"We also look at where people are living, and how they’re living. A lot more people are concentrated in urban areas and megacities, so when you combine those things, you start to think about the issues associated with so many vehicles operating in dense areas. We call this scenario ‘global gridlock’."

no more parking

Fortunately, planet-wide traffic jams aren't a part of Ford's big plan. Just as Spotify made owning music recordings a thing of the past, the cars of the future could be vehicles you subscribe to, rather than own.

"If we're going to offer safe, affordable and efficient transport to millions of people around the world," says Paul, "that might not involve the sort of traditional personal vehicle ownership model that we have today. Beyond personal ownership we’ve got things like car sharing, and integrated systems, where Ford would offer a service that’s still a journey from A to B, but to conduct that journey it would be a combination of a car and maybe a train or a bus."

Parking in the megacity of the future will be, to a lot of people's relief, done by electronic valet: "a car that you can just drop off, and it’ll go off and park itself using vehicle-to-vehicle communication and vehicle-to-building communication, and you can get much denser parking."

the road to autonomous driving

Ford Traffic Jam Assist

Various motor companies have self-driving prototypes on the road today, and Ford's autonomous research vehicle was on display at MWC, but Paul says the introduction of self-driving cars will be gradual. In fact, it has already begun. 

"If you look at the new Focus, we’ve already got very advanced active safety features: radar sensors, cameras and ultrasonic sensors that provide everything from automated parking that lets the car parallel-park itself with your hands off the steering wheel to active braking that works up to 50km/h. That’s this year’s car. But we’ll progressively be offering more and more automated functions, so in the mid-term, around five years, we’ll see things like traffic jam assistance, where it’ll take the adaptive cruise control we’ve got already and combine it with automated steering and braking, and have the vehicle drive itself in stop-start traffic up to 50-60kmph. That means that in the UK you’re looking at something like the M25 in rush hour –the car will just drive itselfcompletely hands-free, and you can relax and do some other stuff."

READ MORE: Ford's LiDAR car can see in 360°

READ MORE: Google, Drive: why you should be pumped about self-driving cars

mind-reading cars

Ford Traffic Jam Assist

And for the fiddly bits where it's still best to have a human in control, technology can still play a significant part.

"One of the areas that really excites me is how we can use wearables to enhance driving," says Paul. "If you’re wearing a band that measures your heart rate, the car can be measuring whether you’re stressed or you’re tired or distracted, and it can react to keep you safer. We’re doing research into cognitive workload, which lets you sense via heart rate or breathing if you’re in a stressful situation. So if you think of a stressful driving situation, such as pulling onto a busy roundabout – if the car knows you need to concentrate, it can block incoming calls and stop traffic alerts, so you have no distractions."

All of which sounds pretty great, but when are we getting the flying cars? Because if it's a choice between self-driving cars and flying cars, we'll take flying every time.

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