How Ford plans to win the future like a software company

Ford has used technology to recreate itself as a 21st century car company. Now it wants to build new experiences and innovate like a software maker.

Ford World Headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan
 Image: Jason Hiner/TechRepublic

When Don Butler came to Ford Motor Company at the beginning of 2014 and stepped into his new office at Ford's Product Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan, it was kind of like a star athlete slipping on the uniform of his cross-town archrival.

The move was a huge win for Ford's journey as a technology company, because Butler came from General Motors where he had combined his expertise in engineering, marketing, and business development to lead two of the auto industry's premier technology projects -- GM's OnStar system and the Cadillac CUE interface.

Meanwhile, over the past five years Ford has generated its own technology mojo with the spread of its SYNC and MyFordTouch systems, which despite a few hiccups and imperfections, have successfully integrated information technology and consumer electronics into millions of new cars and trucks.

With Butler on its team, Ford has the potential to take its technology strategy to the next level. And, Butler hasn't wasted any time figuring out how Ford needs to think differently to get a jump on the next evolution of the auto industry.

SEE: Ford's Don Butler: Car Tech Wizard. Connectivity Guru. Bridge Builder.

"[This role] was tailor-made for me..." said Butler in a recent interview with TechRepublic. "I'm passionate about being able to help this company and this business... My role has been, first of all, to synthesize our vision around connectivity. What does connectivity mean for us? Then after that, what's the strategy to accomplish that vision?"

Butler and his Ford colleagues have broken down vehicle connectivity into three buckets:

1. Brought-in connectivity - Butler refers to this as "leveraging smart devices and the capability of those smart devices," including their apps, media, and communications capabilities, as well as 911 Assist and vehicle health reports; he said Ford is already in a leadership position in this area.
2. Beamed-in connectivity - This involves external connections such as satellite radio, Wi-Fi, and Bluetooth.
3. Built-in connectivity - The final piece is what Butler describes as when "the vehicle itself, independent of any other devices, has its own built-in data connection through on-board data mode."

Ford has obviously done good work with No. 1, but there's still more work to do in making the interface easier for users to navigate, and Butler brings fresh experience from working on this problem with Cadillac CUE.

In terms of No. 2 and No. 3, Butler brings all of his experience in telematics from his days helping to launch OnStar at GM. The fact that Butler gave equal weight to these three indicates that Ford is likely to get a lot more serious about connecting vehicles to the internet beyond just tethering to smartphones.

While he didn't divulge the details of Ford's future connectivity plans, Butler did talk about the two big changes Ford is going to make to its long-term strategy:

1. Learn how to innovate like a software company
2. Move to long-term relationships with customers

As straightforward as those goals may sound, pulling them off will involve deep cultural changes at Ford and that's where Butler is using his considerable energy to drive change.

"At a high level in terms of business, thinking and acting more like a software or technology company is really what we need to be about," said Butler.

Ford's Don Butler
 Image: Ford
Of course, that makes perfect sense since software is destined to power more and more of the systems inside Ford vehicles, but Butler is also thinking bigger in terms of the way Ford builds its vehicles, creates a platform to innovate, and delivers a next generation of services to the people who buy Ford vehicles.

"When it comes to thinking like a software and technology company, [we need to make sure] the vehicle is updatable over time, and we want to plan on a certain number of software updates throughout the year," said Butler. "Device makers have been doing it for a long time. Automakers haven't been doing it for a long time... Enhancements on an ongoing basis need to be thought about and planned... There's some fundamental changes in terms of how we need to organize business."

One of the biggest obstacles remains the product development lifecycle of a new automobile. In most cases, it's five years or more. That means decisions have to be made about technology at an early stage in the process, and many of the technologies involved will become obsolete by the time the product comes to market. That's the kind of product rhythm that carmakers are used to. That's what Butler and team have to change.

What Butler wants to do is to create a "platform for innovation" where Ford doesn't have to predict the future so much in making its decisions about tech during the product development cycle. Instead, it can create a platform that solidifies a few key elements while leaving the door open for evolution during the process of developing a vehicle, as well as afterward when the vehicle goes to market. He cited four elements that would make up this platform for innovation:

1. in-vehicle hardware and software
2. IT back-end infrastructure
3. processes
4. people

The end game: Move a lot faster and be more adaptable.

Butler said, "We need to enter a culture of rapid experimentation -- really rapid, small-scale experiments to learn from, and then if something doesn't work, don't go forward with that. More of a beta testing kind of environment."

And Ford isn't wasting any time getting started. It recently announced a partnership with Intel to bring next generation user interfaces -- including facial recognition and gesture UI -- into vehicles. It's called Mobile Interior Imaging or "Project Mobii." It could be used for recognizing the person that sits in the driver's seat and adjusting the car's controls, seat position, and music playlists to that person's preferences. If the person isn't recognized, then the car could immediately send a photo to the car's primary owner to verify the unrecognized driver has permission to use the vehicle. The system could also use gestures and voice commands to control the car's systems, such as waving a hand in a certain way to open the sunroof or speaking a command to change the temperature of the vehicle.

"Mobii is a great example of this culture of experimentation," said Butler. "I don't know what the future of UI is going to be; I don't know what the user experience inside of the vehicle is going to be. I know that increasingly I've got sensors, cameras, technology, [and it's] trying to mash some stuff together and see what might happen. The use cases that were portrayed are things that we think might make sense."

And partnering with Intel was a perfect fit because both Ford and Intel already had researchers working on the same issues, Butler said. In fact, Butler sees Ford working a lot more closely with partners in the years ahead.

"This is an area where you literally have to create the future together," he said. "We might have some ideas of where we want to go, but if [Ford] can partner with the right people, I think we'll come up with solutions that neither of us on our own could have come up with. Whether it's with Intel, or NVIDIA, or Google, or Apple, we talk to a number of different companies. We have to be comfortable with inventing the future together."

And, it's not just partners that Ford needs to build closer relationships with, according to Butler. If the company is going to evolve to run its product more like a software company, then it also needs to change how it relates to its customers.

"Once someone has decided to begin a relationship with Ford, we want to earn their trust and their loyalty by delivering a safe, superior, connected experience. It's that simple," said Butler. "And the challenge that we've had -- not only Ford but automakers in general -- is we haven't thought of it as a relationship. Nor have our customers, quite candidly... And we want to change that."

That's the other big opportunity that Butler is chasing: building deeper, longer term relationships with customers so Ford can add value to their lives and to their vehicles.

"[What] connectivity does for us is it enables us to literally connect and know the customer better," he said.

That translates into big data. Ford has been an early pioneer in collecting and processing big data and using it in ways to enhance its business. But now, it wants to use big data in the same ways that companies like Google, Amazon, and Facebook use it -- to streamline and customize the user experience.

Fortunately, Butler realizes that before Ford launches into that arena it needs to think very carefully about some of the critical currency of the digital age: trust, privacy, and security.

"Our philosophy is one of stewardship. The question is who owns the data, whose data is it. It's the customer's data. They are the owners," Butler said. "This notion of stewardship is both one of protection and creation of value... Steward is a word not used very much, but in ancient times a steward is someone who a land owner put in charge of their property. The landowner still owned the property, the steward didn't, but they were in charge of taking care of it. And not only taking care of it, but stewards made sure it was in better condition when the landowner returned than when they left. Our notion is if customers trust us to take care of, manage, and use their data, we will then leverage that to improve their experience in the vehicle."

That means Ford has to put systems in place to allow users the right-to-be-forgotten and the ability to opt out and to remove or anonymize their data.

"We want to be in a position that a customer has control over any data that is associated with them, can be personally identifiable to them. They need to be able to say 'I'd like you to extract all of that from your database.' ... Now, how many people do I think would actually do that? Not many at all. Because if that's your inclination, you probably wouldn't have given us permission to use the data to begin with. But if you know you can do it, I believe you'll be more trusting. You are in control, and we want our customers to be as in-control as possible."

But, for those who buy Ford vehicles and entrust Ford with access to some of their data, Butler believes Ford can add a lot of new value to the equation of owning a vehicle.

He gave the example of the oil light blinking in your vehicle. Today, you see that and you know that you need to go schedule an oil change, and you'll typically procrastinate for a while until you have time to check your schedule and call and set something up. Butler said Ford could turn that into a "seamless, almost painless experience" if it used the information it knows about its customers. Ford services could detect that your vehicle is low on oil or due for an oil change and could then use the information it knows about your preferred dealership to automatically check that dealership's calendar, look at the window of time when you've scheduled past appointments, and then automatically schedule something in an available slot and email you a calendar notification. Obviously, you could reschedule if needed, but getting it on your calendar right away makes it more likely you'll actually go and do it on time.

As important as those services are -- and as much as it also means an additional revenue stream for Ford -- Butler still keeps his eye on the ball about what the whole process means for Ford.

"Nothing happens in our business today until we sell or lease a vehicle," he said. "We are primarily in the business of designing and selling vehicles. So the first thing connectivity has to do for us is make our vehicles more attractive, make them more desirable."

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Jason Hiner is Editor in Chief of TechRepublic and Long Form Editor of ZDNet. He writes about the people, products, and ideas changing how we live and work in the 21st century. He's co-author of the book, Follow the Geeks.


Ford has a long way to go.  Their voice navigation parser is abysmal.  If you do not exactly use the parser's grammar, you get nothing. (Actually their voice parser for other systems is equally sh***ty as well)

Ford's marriage to Microsoft's Sync is another example.  After owning a MKZ for 1.5 years, I can easily see that MS really hates Apple.  The interface between Sync and my iPhone is almost non-existent: I can make cell phone calls, but I cannot (using Sync) move from audio source to another on my iPhone.  For example, from Pandora to a saved Podcast.

As a software developer/consultant myself, if Ford was smart, they would open up the interface into their car's system software to other developers, who could not use Sync and developer created drivers instead..

I like my car Ford...I just wish it were more user friendly!


WHY should a car company become more like a software company?

Software companies have a far more transient view of their products:  "Of course it has bugs when we ship, but we'll patch later". "Your software is 2 years old, you need to buy a new version". "We don't support that version any longer"

Wrong. Wrong. Wrong. I want a  car designed as a finished product, for the long haul. Not a work in progress.


What freaks me out is how oblivious the average technologist or technocrat is to the corner we are painting ourselves into by relying so heavily on these "hard" technologies without any emphasis on the "soft" technologies needed to balance them out. If a car has internet connectivity, that means someone else could drive your car. We don't have trust and integrity developed in this society to the point where this is a safe and sane road to travel down. Someone could decide to just make a car that works. You don't need an embedded controller to make a car work. You need an embedded controller to make the driver feel like he's piloting a rocketship to Mars. Well, he's not. He's probably just driving to work. You don't need a digital car to drive to work. In fact, a lot of people find alternatives to driving to work because the roads are so clogged. Where's the balance? If we don't want to run ourselves off a cliff, our technologies need more balance.

Brian Smith
Brian Smith

Is that a Chevy Impala in the parking lot?


If Ford continues its alliance with Microsoft, the Sync disaster will be repeated because building systems on top of weak foundations (Windows is akin to a can of spaghetti) is a ticking time-bomb.


I am in Los Angeles, and recently have started to work on a project with a friend.  The drive takes too long; it's an hour or so.  So I have been trying to take the bus - which takes around the same amount of time if you ignore the walking time.  The bus is a PITA, and it sure isn't "the Google Bus", but I can get through 50 to 100 pages of a beginner-level textbook while I ride, write some code, or just catch up on reading something light like Wired or Time, or read the phone.  If I'm tired, I can nap.  On the way home, I catch up on social media.  Some days I have a pad, a laptop, and a phone in my bag - talk about "connectivity".  The bus is full of "win". 

The bus also costs $3, versus the $15 or so for the round-trip commute by car.  My car is nearly 20 years old, still working, costs only $500 to $1000 a year in repairs, and $2000 or more in gas.  I also own a second car, a pickup.  The only thing motivating me to buy a car is the desire to get a shiny new car - and I just lack that desire lately.

Ford is in trouble if more people start to think like me.


Unfortunately, focusing on these things alone will not make Ford a winner if they can't work the fundamentals.  When I buy a car I want reliability and ease of repair.  And I shouldn't have to think to ask for those.  I don't want to pay $2000.00 for a $150.00 replacement part because it is single-sourced.  I do not want a shoddy or flaky component disabling a key subsystem.  I don't want to pay $7.00 a month for a network platform "service" either.

My 2011 Fiesta has no failure mode for the lock actuators.  Let me say that another way.  When I pull up next to an aggressive homeless guy, I have to just hope he thinks my doors are locked because the driver side actuator is a single point of failure.  There is no manual lock.  After 100 years of experience with automotive platforms, Ford is "forgetting" the obvious.  I won't buy a Ford again.

In the high tech space, when you get a Fiesta with Sync or even without, you are buying single-source technology.  This stuff doesn't fit in a single or double radio slot or match a 1U form factor.  So when it goes, you will pay top dollar.  And instead of being layered, it is entangled.  If the console computer goes down, will the locks still work?

As long as the iPhone generation likes Ford's new shiny baubles, Fordwill be fine.  But anyone with a need to economize will try it once and then stay away.

John Benedict Tigers
John Benedict Tigers

Sync has been an unmitigated disaster. Let's hope Ford reconsiders and doesn't become the next Microsoft.


People need more reliable and durable cars. Connectivity is just an added bonus.


Maybe I'm old school but the price to do all this is then reflected in the price of the vehicle. This is what is separating our classes of people. Those that can afford them new and those that cannot. The idea is wonderful and Butler's comments on stewardship is excellent. Now the question is how can Ford tell the NSA that they cannot have the data and it belongs to the owner. We will lose all our freedom to advance "making our lives easier". I'm sorry but if our "government" wants to know where we (the user) is located; they simply call Ford and demand in the name of National Security all data...enough said?


Ford, made in the U.S., with parts made from around the world.

"Buy American"...yeah right, if we can bring manufacturing jobs back

to the U.S. from overseas. By then, pigs will have learned to fly.


Well - we own a new 2014 Fusion hybrid with the SYNC system.  I'm a Ford guy for sure, only had a couple of other makes in the last 50 years.  Build them and race 'em too.  Ford needs to send their software engineers out to talk to real people and drive other makes.  We traded in a 2013 Dodge Dart and the Dodge user interface (big 7" panel, like most upgraded interior controls) is way better in many places than SYNC.  SYNC is buggy, inconsistent, voice commands don't work most of the time, system makes arbitrary decisions on interior and seat comfort controls - and that's in our first 1000 miles.  The Dodge interface was easy to negotiate, voice commands worked reliably and the Nav system was essentially Garmin repackaged.  I understand that Mazda uses Tom-Tom.  The Ford Nav system is apparently from Microsoft and is a $795 option.  It's more like a $79 eBay nav system.  The $200 Garmin from Amazon that I use in the truck blows the SYNC Nav system into the dirt.  After the first use of the Nav system I was ready to call Ford and ask for my $800 back and they could keep their damn screwball SD chip.  Why reinvent the wheel, integrate decent software with your own.  I admire their effort - but they need to get the present systems working reliably before they soar off into the future.  Bad start doesn't always mean good finish.  Roll your own means you have to catch up to and power by the ones already mature in the market.  That wastes time and engineering IMHO.


Well-written and interesting article! Thanks for your due diligence, Mr. Hiner. As for me, I'll keep on buying the vehicles without all the fancy new doodads, because I prefer to add portable, updatable stuff, since I keep my vehicles about ten years each.


So we can expect a lot more crashes and locked up cars.  Wonderful.

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