Ford Concept Car Parks its Smart Apps in the Cloud

This Most Connected Company bets on cloud-based apps in the Evos and beyond.

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Want a car that can turn off your alarm clock in the morning so you can get an extra hour of sleep? Or one that will monitor your heart rate and communicate with other vehicles on the highway? There will be a Ford for that in the future, and it will be based on the Evos, Ford's new concept car, which runs its apps in the cloud.

The Evos, which made its U. S. debut in January at the Consumer Electronics Association trade show in Las Vegas, epitomizes the automaker's attempt to separate itself from the competition across models and price ranges. While you'll never see the Evos in a dealer's showroom, it's already exerting an influence on the 2013 Ford Fusion and the 2015 Mustang.

The Evos' technology bridges the gap between home and office by sharing data in the cloud for an array of on-board apps, giving drivers more ways to personalize their vehicles. Ford is recognized by U.S. News as a Most Connected Company for not only being a pioneer in bringing cloud-based technology to its vehicles, but for making it available in its lower-priced models.

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"We want you to have access to your life outside the car while you're riding inside," says Jim Buczkowski, Henry Ford technical fellow and director of electrical and electronics systems at Ford Research and Innovation. "And we want it to be seamless. We want you to have the same access to devices at home as you do on the road. We're taking advantage of that opportunity created by the cloud."

The heart-rate monitor, located in seat sensors, sends and extracts cloud data. Once it identifies that the driver's heart rate has become elevated, all but the critical gauges drop from the dashboard. Phone calls are routed to voicemail. Once conditions improve, access to these applications is restored.

Other enhancements include the ability to detect when the driver is getting drowsy. "We're coming up with better techniques to sense that," says Buczkowski. "In the future, we'll have much better capabilities to analyze workload using information from the cloud and the vehicle itself."

Ford is unique among many of its competitors in that its cloud-based upgrades will be available in its most mass-marketed vehicles.

"Innovation of this kind usually starts at the high end of the car market, works its way down, and stops before it reaches the economy car level," says Jeff Kagen, an Atlanta-based auto analyst and business consultant. "Ford is an exception. Since there is no real luxury brand, the innovation starts with the entry-level vehicles."

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Smart apps once found only in luxury cars will be in demand in sub-compact, compact, and midsized lines, Kagen says. "When you step into a Lexus, you get the weather and road conditions—that was once considered cutting-edge. The next generation is going to expect this in lower-cost models, and Ford has begun to prepare for that," he says.

"If you look at the Evos, a lot of the design cues will be found in the Fusion that's going into production very soon," says Buczkowski. "There will be a strong resemblance in terms of content and technology. The Fusion will not yet have all the cloud-based features built into the Evos, but it will have driver assistance features like collision and lane-departure warning found on the concept car."

Ford's latest cloud-based innovations mark a major upgrade for the automaker's technology efforts. A precursor to Ford's cloud was Sync, an on-board system that enables hands-free phone calls, which is currently installed in all 14 Ford and five Lincoln models. It was followed by MyFord Touch, a next-generation successor that has been plagued by integration problems with handheld devices. Consumer Reports recommended that users install a USB-drive upgrade that went out in March 2012.

Getting new technology just right will likely present challenges for designers beyond the current-year model. Since many new features will be user-facing, there are concerns that they may distract people when they're behind the wheel. "People could lose focus on driving while they're deciding what device to use," says Kagen. "All those smart apps have the potential to pull the driver's eyes from the road. Unlike texting, there are no laws to cover this."