Ford’s presence at the Mobile World Congress 2015 is all about mobility within the planet’s increasingly cramped and connected urban spaces.

Ken Washington, vice president of Ford’s Research and Advanced Engineering and his team tells us about their Smart Mobility philosophy, their Global Mobility projects (some of which could have particular relevance to the South African market) and their autonomous cars as well as their new Ford Focus Electric being launched in Europe in the coming months.

htxt.africa: With the growth of cities into megacities and the number of people increasing and space for cars decreasing, you’ve got to be worrying about people moving to bikes and scooters. Is this the reason for your Smart Mobility bike project [An experiment in bundling electric bikes in cars for getting around after you’ve parked – Ed] playing such a big role at your presence here at Mobile World Congress 2015?

KW Not really. We simply thought that this was the perfect platform for this project to accompany our theme of mobility. Our vision is to bring alternative modes of mobility to the masses, to bring experiences and solutions that they are asking us for. We’re being told that the combination of a bike and a vehicle is the solution.

We opened this question to our employees and what you see outside are just two of the over 100 projects that came back to us from them. There are some amazing things that didn’t even make the cut.

Is it not cannibalising your own market by encouraging biking to people who buy cars?

Not really. The truth is with our Smart Mobility, the goal is to learn about all forms of mobility within the city. We want to own and enhance both. People know about cars and people know about bikes, but few know anything about how the two interact with each other. That’s what we’re trying to do with these. The idea is simply to capture data from bikes by using Bluetooth.

That is where our Info Cycle experiment comes in. This is an open-source research initiative that we’re using to gather information from thousands of bikers about how bikes are used in different urban areas.

How are you planning to use this big data that you’re collecting from bikers?

Well the first step will be to see what comes out of the data. We fit a sensor box on the frame of the bike which is retro-fittable and has an accelerometer, a gyroscope, a humidity, cadence and light sensor. This box gathers data such as wheel speed, acceleration, weather and altitude.

From there the goal is to start a conversation with the bike manufacturers who are working within an ecosystem that we see as quite underserved by this sort of data. Neither industry is thinking about the other. This is something we’d like to change.

We’re thinking that the actual application of this technology could be in the form of a box or a clip or a Google-like service that could connect to any existing hardware or software. We’re starting with a small group of riders in a city and we’ll use their feedback to develop and build the application. We have no decided date on when this could come to market.

What sort of business solutions are you aiming to cater to with your MoDe:Pro?

We’re looking at providing solutions to business owners who operate within a very congested, big city environment. For example, we’re thinking of satellite delivery. One solution would be a delivery by van and skill by bike. So an emergency crew show up on the scene and the skilled members of the team who can save lives can cut through the congestion and traffic and get to the scene on time to be effective. Also think about courier companies who can cut on costs dramatically by delivering on bikes.

So it’s for the small to medium business. SA businesses like these might have trouble affording such a solution. Are you open to possibly working alongside government to take on subsidies and make these projects available to these businesses?

This is definitely something we can look at.

Owning a car is an expensive exercise and you’re addressing this with your Global Mobility Projects, particularly your Share-Car project in India. What other projects do you have that address the buyer who can’t afford their own car?

That’s a great project, isn’t it? At the moment we’re simply seeing what works in India for example and scaling it to places like South Africa from there.

Our goal with this project is to learn, which is often seen as a dirty word, but this is something that is helping us improve and adapt.

Our Dynamic Shuttle Service running in London is also aimed at reducing emissions and allowing everyone to enjoy transport solutions without owning a car of their own. In fact, in that project, the more people that the shuttle picks up, the cheaper the ride becomes for the riders. So it encourages people to message or tweet their friends and say “hey, I’m getting the shuttle to work today, why don’t you join me?”

And obviously you get some marketing out of the tweets?

Of course. Also, we’re getting future Ford buyers in to our vehicle to experience them.

On your autonomous vehicles, Mercedes Benz announced theirs and you said you’re not in a rush to compete. You’d rather get the technology right before you rush something not ready to market. What do you have planned?

Yes. The technology required for autonomous vehicles is not yet there. We do have a very active research program to develop the right sensors and the correct system that will fit on to the vehicle at a low enough cost to get the tech to the masses within next five years.

This technology needs to deal with all the complexities a vehicle will see on the road: like snow, low light and pedestrians.

We have an ongoing development program on semi-autonomous systems which includes Active City Stop bringing a vehicle to a complete stop from 50km/h to avoid a collision and Pedestrian Protect. The goal is to make safer, better drivers.

Your full Electric Ford Focus is being launched in your spring in to the European market. What is your response to critics of electric vehicles who complain about the range issues, the time to recharge and those that say we need to rely on renewable energy to recharge vehicles and not plugging in to the grid?

Well we’re working on multiple fronts. One is that we’ll continue to manufacture fuel efficient Internal Combustion engines and diesel engines.

We’re also continuing to develop enhancements in our electrification powertrain, to bring the cost down, to make it available on multiple platforms and third in the longer term we have a research activity to develop a fuel cell option for the future which we’ll bring out and scale when the time is right.

Along with electric we’re seeing a trend towards smaller engines like your 1-litre Ecoboost one. Are we seeing the likes of the V8 and anything over 3-litres resigned to the dinosaur graveyard?

We see a need to improve consumption so we’re focusing on the right combination of feel, performance and fuel efficiency depending on what our consumers require. We know that these are engines that even the enthusiasts will enjoy. We offer a full range of engines for everyone and we’ll continue to produce the performance ranges like the Mustangs and the RS range.