Future in Focus: New Research Team to Drive Innovation in Robotics and AI
By Dr. Ken Washington, Vice President, Ford Research and Advanced Engineering, and Chief Technology Officer
The journey toward a world with autonomous vehicles gets a lot of attention these days, but there are many other important ways that computing power and sensor technology capability will help shape the future of transportation. Simply put, the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the way we get around — even in just the next five to 10 years — is potentially enormous.
As Ford’s head of research and chief technology officer, I can tell you there’s so much going on in the world of advanced engineering, it’s imperative that we maintain a crystal clear focus on the most important elements to help us achieve our vision of changing the way the world moves. And that’s why at Ford, we are announcing the creation of the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Research team as part of Ford Research and Advanced Engineering.
This team will be dedicated to a greater focus on evaluating new sensor technologies, machine learning methods, technical requirements for entry into global markets, and development of personal mobility devices, drones and other aerial robotics to enhance first- and last-mile travel. With our plans to be at the forefront in the field, this move aligns multiple disciplines under one team for a more concerted effort as we increasingly come to understand the potential for robotics and artificial intelligence. The move also serves to further advance projects we’ve already presented — such as our autonomous vehicle development program, and those we aren’t quite ready to reveal.
We’re doing all this because now that we have an established partnership with Argo AI to lead development of our virtual driver system — the computer platform, sensors and algorithms — for our first-generation self-driving vehicle program, we can put greater emphasis on other rapidly developing advancements in this space that will feed work in autonomous vehicle technology. Our robotics and artificial intelligence researchers will continue to collaborate with the Argo AI team so they can someday put this promising emerging technology to work in future generations of self-driving vehicles.
Our research team already has a lot going on, so with Argo AI leading development of our virtual driver system for production self-driving vehicles — building off what we started — we can use the existing Ford virtual driver system for continued research without disrupting production work. The most recent example of that was demonstrated at Mcity, the University of Michigan test track that simulates an urban environment. We’ll be able to use our research vehicle fleet to experiment with emerging sensing technology and try out new ways to leverage deep learning techniques. This means you’ll likely see at least two separate fleets of self-driving vehicles on the road — one led by the Ford team, conducting advanced research, and another by Argo AI, developing and testing our virtual driver system for production.
The potential for autonomous vehicle technology to transform society means there’s heavy emphasis on its development, but automation and artificial intelligence can be applied in other ways as well. We are already using robotics in manufacturing and logistics, and will evaluate further advancements in collaborative robots to assist in ergonomically difficult tasks. Artificial intelligence plays a big role as part of our Global Data and Analytic team’s support for sales, marketing and finance, so this team will look to further spread the technology to drive smarter decision making and more personalized experiences.
Our new research team will continue the relationships we’ve built with startup companies through partnerships, investments and acquisitions. The startup community is demonstrating tremendous opportunities for us with advanced sensors, deep learning, applied robotics and more, so it’s important for us to continue to foster these relationships. Deeply established partnerships with companies like Nirenberg Neuroscience, Civil Maps and SAIPS are already serving us well with more advanced capabilities we’re considering for application in the future.
Finally, the research team will lead projects with universities working on robotics and artificial intelligence, including the University of Michigan, Stanford University, M.I.T., Virginia Tech, Purdue University, Texas A&M, Georgia Institute of Technology and others that we’re currently developing relationships with. We’re especially excited about our upcoming presence on the University of Michigan campus with the new Ford Motor Company Robotics Building. The professors and students at these universities represent the future, so it’s important for us to learn from them to continue being on the leading edge.
This is the next step in Ford’s automation story. Before I joined the company, the research team had already identified the potential for new technologies to raise the level of automation in our vehicles as a way to improve safety. This dates back to Ford’s participation in the DARPA Grand Challenges, when we were the only automaker with an employee-led team to compete. Now, as we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the DARPA Urban Challenge, which many identify as the seminal moment in formation of today’s self-driving car development community, there’s no better time to take the next step. Ford is poised to drive into the future by expanding automation of mobility products and services.
This decision is driving energy with everyone on our team, as it clearly indicates the direction of Ford Motor Company. Because we understand the science of robotics and artificial intelligence, we can establish a team tasked with not just watching the future, but helping to create it.