Steve Wozniak Disrupts the Drive at Ford’s ‘Go Further’ Confab

Woz weighs in on Ford's cloud-connected automotive tech.

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Matt Peckham / TIME

From left to right: Steve Wozniak, Molly Wood (CNET), Jim Buczkowski (Ford) speak at Ford's 'Go Further with Ford' 2013 conference.

The man who co-founded Apple with pal Steve Jobs and personally designed the very first Apple computers took the stage at Ford’s “Go Furthe”‘ conference in Dearborn, Mich., yesterday afternoon to talk about the future of driving, reacting to splashy not-so-far-out vehicle concepts that played like the automotive version of Microsoft‘s home of the future.

Wozniak was joined by Ford’s director of electrical and electronics systems, Jim Buczkowksi, the two of them sitting to either side of session moderator (and CNET executive editor) Molly Wood. The format of the panel involved Wood posing questions and keeping everyone on point while cycling through conversation-starting concept videos. Buczkowski pitched Ford’s commitment to pursuing the high-concept ideas, and Wozniak either crooned along or pushed against notions he found unwieldy or mismatched to the driving experience.

It all centered on EVOS, Ford’s sleek, cloud-connected concept car, unveiled in September 2011 at the Frankfurt Motor Show. This session, dubbed “Disrupting the Drive,” was about exploring the ramifications of EVOS’s future promise through 2013’s lens.

EVOS looks arresting: a DeLorean-like hybrid plug-in coupe with curves where you wouldn’t expect curves to be, throwing back light like something with alien alloys. But forget the design for a moment and think about the cloud, because a car like EVOS lives and thrives in it.

Imagine lying in your bed, early morning, say 6:00 a.m., your EVOS parked in the garage. Before you wake, the car’s already reaching out to the cloud, checking the weather (not a cloud in the sky), monitoring traffic (light, no accidents along your work route), its digital fingers rifling through your virtual work calendar. Your first meeting isn’t until 9:30 a.m., which results in EVOS signaling your wireless alarm clock to push back its wake-up call by half an hour, the car collating all the relevant information to green-light continued slumber.

When you do get up, flipping on your favorite music mix as you eat, shower and dress, EVOS keeps track of what you’re listening to, then dynamically transfers the feed to its onboard audio system when you’re ready to leave — you don’t lift a finger (unless you want to: all of this is optional). When you slip behind the wheel, the car’s fully juiced after resting overnight on its wireless inductive charging pad. As you pull away, the car sends one final command to the house, instructing it to switch over to energy efficiency mode. (Ford summarizes these features as: wireless charging, personalization, home automation, vehicle-to-infrastructure and cloud connectivity.)

And so you’re off, rolling down the road to highway whatever. But which route should you take? Using Ford’s voice-activated SYNC technology to honor your requests, the car finds the best ways, plural, based on how much time it judges you have. If you’re still early, after it’s crunched the relevant weather and traffic data, the car suggests a more intriguing route, say something involving inclines, tight curves and killer views. And here’s where it gets really interesting: Using historical driving data, the car makes subtle dynamic adjustments, as you drive, to its braking, suspension, steering and fuel/electric mix, to give you the best possible control given the route, temperature, elevation and weather conditions while still being mindful of energy efficiency.

The car also knows what you like to listen to along specific stretches based on prior drives. It can catalog and queue songs that have a minimum beats-per-minute tempo, launched as you’re pulling 180-degree turns at hair-raising speeds along vertiginous vistas. (Ford summarizes these features as: real-time routing, mood music, social navigation and adaptive dynamics.)

EVOS wants to make your ability to drive physiologically optimal, too, monitoring your heartbeat through sensors embedded in the seat and collating that with vehicle performance data to determine, say in that hairpin-turn scenario, that you’re at your performance limit. To compensate, the car begins turning off unnecessary panel displays and routes incoming phone calls to voicemail to minimize distractions. If you think that willfully driving unsafe scenario is a bit indulgent, imagine another where you’re driving through a blizzard, skating across patches of black ice with virtually no visibility, well after dark, the idea being that the car can become a semi-autonomous information aggregation engine, reacting to your needs without manual prompting.

Back to your work drive: As you approach the city main, EVOS alerts you that air pollution levels are high and switches your environmental controls to settings that minimize exposure. The car then offers alternative less polluted routes (if available) to your destination.

Once you’re in the city, stopping at lights and encountering more traffic, EVOS switches to electric-only mode, broadcasting signals readable by local law enforcement to indicate that, despite the car’s exhaust tailpipe, you’re driving your hybrid in electric mode (this assumes future scenarios where driving a hybrid in electric mode becomes mandatory, say on high pollution days). As the bumper-to-bumper traffic slows, EVOS offers to switch to autonomous driving mode, giving you a chance to check email on your phone or tablet before arriving at work. And as you approach your destination, EVOS locates a vacant inductive charging port, then guides you to the space. Congratulations, you made it! (Ford summarizes these features as: advanced filtration, user interface, healthy touring, workload estimation and wellness monitoring.)

That’s the gist of Ford’s publicly disclosed future thinking, anyway, and it prompted an interesting exchange between Wozniak and Buczkowksi. Buczkowksi opened by describing Ford’s goals as “making your experience with the vehicle seamless with the outside world.” Wozniak countered that “the more tech you build in, the more it should be optional.”

“Cars used to be an escape,” said Wozniak, noting that he sometimes uses driving as a way to “get away” and rarely takes calls in vehicles (handsfree or no). “You want technology to improve the experience, but also to stay out of the way — to let you be you,” he continued, though when the conversation shifted to navigation, Wozniak danced in the other direction, lobbying for more semiotically nuanced onboard computers: “I just want navigation to guide me like a real human,” he said, critiquing the way navigational instructions parse today, then throwing in a plug for augmented reality windshields, where directions might overlay the road through the windshield (think Google Glass super-sized) the way television broadcasters overlay football fields with seamless game-related visual cues.

“But what about open API development?” asked someone in the audience, bringing up vehicle interoperability and third-party integration. Buczkowski parsed the question cautiously, noting that Ford already “partly leverages open API development,” though admitting that it’s “really key” to the company’s future. Wozniak took the opportunity to offer advice: “Ford should say we’re making more than cars, we’re making a platform for cars,” he told Buczkowski, who didn’t disagree, but noted that Ford has to think about stiff industry safety regulations when determining what is or isn’t allowed inside a Ford vehicle. That resonated with Wozniak, who added “This is a very complicated system even compared to an iPhone as far as input/output goes.”

When might we see EVOS? Probably never: Ford has no plans to produce its concept car. But fanciful as some of its features sound, every one is based on technology that exists today. The question raised here wasn’t “Can we?” but “Should we?” and, more to the point, “How should we?”

Buczkowski’s right, of course, when he says “You shouldn’t have to program your home or navigation systems; these things should learn adaptively over time.” The other question — and no one’s answered it yet, including Ford — is how companies should implement automation in ways that don’t feel ham-handed and actually mitigate distraction instead of complicating things. That, and with data privacy and security in the hot-seat, there’s the question of who has access to all this vehicle-aggregated data as well as how secure it is from hacking. We’re talking about information that includes where you’ve driven, how you drove, how excited you got while doing so and what you jammed to along the way.

“Is my car going to keep my secrets secret from other people?” asked Wozniak. Even if it does, there’s the question of whether vehicles ought to become another data lode for the data-mining overlords. As Ford’s head of global marketing, Jim Farley, put it in an earlier session, when everyone makes both beautiful and reliable vehicles, trust becomes the differentiator: In an always-online automotive future, who do you trust?

2 comments
PaulDirks
PaulDirks

I can't even trust a type-ahead keyboard to not mangle what I mean and I'm supposed to think any of this is desirable? No thanks. NEVER TRUST A ROBOT!