Your Car as Entertainment Center: Ford Motor at CES

Ford’s Jim Buczkowski is a top researcher, a company executive, and an avid consumer electronics beta tester

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This show is part of our coverage of the 2013 Consumer Electronics Show.


Steven Cherry: Hi, this is Steven Cherry for IEEE Spectrum’s Techwise Conversations.

Ford, the company that virtually invented mass production, later came on hard times in terms of innovation, but it’s certainly turned itself around as a technology company. It has almost 500 patents related to hybrid engines, and it was the first company with a hybrid SUV. In 2008, its first driver-assistance service, Sync, leapfrogged competitors like OnStar with its music and location services.

Here at the giant Consumer Electronics Show this month in Las Vegas, the company is showing off its C-Max line of hybrid-electric vehicles. It can run on either the gas or electric engines, separately or together, and it features what Ford calls an “electronically controlled, continuously variable” transmission. And it’s laden with many of the same consumer electronics found throughout the show floor.

One reason for Ford’s technological turnaround can be found in the person of Jim Buczkowski. He’s both a world-class technologist and a high-level executive, something that’s pretty rare when a company—any company, not just carmakers—reaches a certain size.

He has a bachelor’s degree in computer engineering and a master’s degree in electrical engineering, both from the University of Michigan. His company bio says he’s been a beta-tester for TiVo and Slingbox, and he’s my guest today, in person, at the Ford booth at CES.

Jim, welcome to the podcast.

Jim Buczkowski: Well, thank you, Steve.

Steven Cherry: Jim, Ford is pretty proud of the C-Max hybrid. Steer us through it and tell us why.

Jim Buczkowski: Well, let me back up a bit and talk about what we call “power of choice.” As we’ve looked at the various forms of powertrains that we offer our customers, we really have to look at individual customer needs, and so it’s not about one type of powertrain that fits every customer. So there are customers that, full electric vehicle, like our Focus battery-electric vehicle, is ideal for—shorter range, shorter commutes, the ability to find and not have that range anxiety, and so on. But there are other folks that have different use cases. So a plug-in hybrid still offers some great fuel efficiency, but that offers the powertrain as a backup to that, and then a full hybrid, which gives the mix between using the battery and—battery electrics—and the gas powertrain.

And then, of course, for those that have even more needs, maybe larger families or towing or whatever, we go into the full-gas engines very efficiently with EcoBoost engines [PDF] that really give great performance but also great fuel economy.

Steven Cherry: So what vehicle would, say, a family of four that is concerned with driving range, what would be the best choice for them?

Jim Buczkowski: Oh, well, I . . . you know, it’s hard for me, because I love them all. You know, if they like a little bit larger sedan, the Fusion is a fantastic vehicle. It offers a whole complement of capabilities and technologies, both on the energy-efficiency side for, you know, our hybrid-electric version as well. C-Max Energi, a little bit smaller but still has a lot of interior space, and so on, for a family, maybe a young family that has some young children, that needs some extra space as well, too.

Steven Cherry: If you had to pick one technology that you’re especially proud of that you’re showing at the show here, what would it be?

Jim Buczkowski: We announced yesterday our app-developer program, and that app-developer program gives us an opportunity to really engage the innovation creativity of people outside of the Ford Motor Co. to help us provide solutions for our customers. So launching that yesterday with full support—really inviting people to innovate with us and be part of the ecosystem, provide solutions, applications that work inside vehicles—I’m pretty excited about that.

There’s other things we’re talking about. MyEnergi Home [MyEnergi Lifestyle] really focused on helping people better utilize and better understand their energy usage and maybe optimize how they use energy, you know, shifting some of the usage to times when energy costs are lower, and so on. And we’ve got some great partners that we’re working with on that, and, again, our new partners in the app area.

We’ve launched a couple of new partners with USA Today. One I particularly really like is Glimpse. If you’ve ever used Glimpse, you know, allowing someone to see where you’re at, it’s great. I talk about the use case. I like to talk about it in terms of experiences and how people are going to use it, and, you know, things that are very—people understand in their daily life. When I’m coming home from work, I’ve got about a 30-minute drive, and so my wife always wants me to give her a heads-up, right, before I get home, and, you know, making that phone call or whatever, and telling her where you’re at. Well, sending a Glimpse gives her my location. She can track and know exactly when I’m going to be home and be ready. You know, when you’re traveling, Glimpse is great.

Steven Cherry: So you’re both a Henry Ford Technical Fellow, and there are only four of you right now at the company, and you’re the director of electrical and electronics systems. You report to the VP of research and innovation, and also the VP of engineering. Do you think having both sides invested in one person makes a difference?

Jim Buczkowski: My goal now, I spent a good portion of my career in the implementation side, putting things, putting product into production. And, you know, part of the Sync team, the MyFord Touch team, launching that. Now I’m shifted a bit upstream to make sure that we continue to load that pipeline with innovation. I have an opportunity to spend time in Silicon Valley, and just recently in Israel, meeting with partners, potential partners, whether they’re small companies, start-ups, or large companies that have innovative ideas that really could create new experiences for our customers, is a lot of fun and exciting. I really enjoy that piece of it.

And I get the support, certainly from our research and advance, and our chief technology officer, in terms of the innovation, but also downstream from the Ford model folks, the implementation folks, where I was formerly, making sure we have things ready to feed the pipeline, and they’re ready to grab hold of them and put them into production.

Steven Cherry: I mentioned you’ve beta-tested for TiVo and Slingbox, and I understand for a couple of versions of Microsoft’s operating systems as well. You’ve spearheaded a couple of big collaborations, with Sony for example, and Microsoft, and that one led to the Sync system. Does being a personal gearhead help in designing new systems for cars?

Jim Buczkowski: Other people can answer that better than I can. You know, I’m personally biased. I’m really a hands-on person. You know, I can’t emphasize enough, it sounds, you know, repeated over again that the experiences you’re creating are what matters. Technology is really important. That’s what we are, as engineers, we love technology and so on, but technology that doesn’t create a great experience, even though it’s great technology, is not really going to be useful to customers. It’s not going to create a better life for customers.

So, getting back to your question, is, experiencing it, right? I like to grab hold of something. The opportunity I’ve had to do a little beta-testing here and there, Nest most recently as well, too. It gives me a bit of hands-on and says, you know, how can I integrate it into my life and make an experience out of it? And I’m obviously more technical than the average. If it’s hard for me to do, it’s going to be impossible for others to do, right? And even if it’s easy for me to do, it really needs something that I can explain to other people very simply. And so it’s all about hands-on and understanding the technology when people ask for something and say, “My life would really be different if I could do that,” being able to scratch your head and say, “Boy, that technology, this is what’s going to be needed to enable that experience going forward.” Does it exist out there, trying to find it. . . .

You know, we have, I have a list of things that we keep internally on, that are on my priority list of, if I could solve this problem, I’d really make a difference. I’ll give you one simple example: It’s nonproprietary, whatever, the self-cleaning camera lens, right? Those folks that have backup cameras on their vehicles, especially from where I am, in Michigan, you get salt and dirt and road film on it, and you’ve got to clean it to get a good view out of the back of the cameras. If I could find it, and I’m searching the world for technologies that have a self-cleaning camera that’s very cost-effective, not a windshield wiper or something really expensive, but something that, whether it’s materials or nanomaterials or whatever. But you can imagine what a difference that would make for a consumer to have, not have to worry about cleaning the camera.

Steven Cherry: I want that for my eyeglasses.

Jim Buczkowski: Yeah, there you go.

Steven Cherry: Cars are becoming giant entertainment systems, at 100 kilometers per hour. Is that entirely a good thing?

Jim Buczkowski: Well, I think you’ve got to think about what customers really want, the experiences they want in their vehicles. And they have so many entertainment choices. And those choices that they have are very important to them. And they want those same experiences in the vehicle. And so the way we look at it is, how do we provide those experiences in a way that, say, helps keep their eyes on the road and hands on the wheel, yet they can still enjoy those experiences. So it’s really more of a, this is what consumers are telling us they want, and how do we help them do that and yet keep them focused on their primary mission driving the vehicle.

So we can use technology like voice recognition to help them do that, enabling apps that normally are used on a phone and are really not appropriate to be managed while you’re driving, using a voice command to control that allows them to have those experiences. So it’s really more about being consumer driven and creating those experiences in the car that are important to customers.

Steven Cherry: Cars are also throwing off a lot of data. That’s going to be a great thing, but it’s also a bit worrisome. What are some of the benefits, as you see them, and what do you think about the issues of personal privacy?

Jim Buczkowski: It’s absolutely important. And we focus a lot on privacy. We also focus on security of information as well, too. And creating these next generations of experiences, I tend to believe that we’ve probably exhausted most experiences that are independent of the individual, right? So we can create a much better experience if we know a little bit about you, which means we have the responsibility to really know a little more about you but protect that information. We’re continuing to look at security models—we work very closely with our IT organization on how the IT organization protects the enterprise, what kind of technologies they use, and how we can apply those same technologies in the vehicle—encryption keys, those kinds of things.

Steven Cherry: And that’s going to be particularly complicated when you’re opening up the car as a kind of open platform to developers.

Jim Buczkowski: Yeah, absolutely. And really, opening up to developers as well, too, in the driver distraction, not only in safety and security, but also making sure that what is the interface, the human-machine interface, is one that’s appropriate for driving as well, too. So we have a set of rules and guidelines and testing that’s required before applications go into production.

Steven Cherry: So, Jim, I mentioned you’re a Ford Technical Fellow. An IBM Fellow, Ted Selker, once pointed out to me that my car probably had the most comfortable seat I sit in, and the best stereo I listen to, and there’s about as much computing going in the car as in my entire living room, so it’s no surprise the car companies are here in force at the Consumer Electronics Show. Thanks for your hospitality here at the Ford booth.

Jim Buczkowski: Absolutely, yeah, and we’re glad to have you guys here supporting us as well, too, and hope you enjoy it too. There’s certainly a lot of great things that go on here at CES.

Steven Cherry: We’ve been speaking with Jim Buczkowski, director of electrical and electronics systems at Ford Motor Co., about Ford’s new models, car entertainment, and car safety.

For IEEE Spectrum’s Techwise Conversations, I’m Steven Cherry.

Announcer: Techwise Conversations is sponsored by National Instruments.

This interview was recorded 8 January 2013.
Audio engineers: Francesco Ferorelli and Celia Gorman

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