“The impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the way we get around – even in just the next five to 10 years – will be enormous,” says Ken Washington, vice president of Research and Advanced Engineering and Chief Technical Officer of Ford Motor Company.
Washington says that this move aligns multiple disciplines under one team for a more concerted effort to come to understand the potential for robotics and artificial intelligence. This includes a greater focus on evaluating new sensor technologies, machine-learning methods, technical requirements for entry into global markets, and the development of personal mobility devices, drones and other aerial robotics that can enhance travel.
The new team also serves to advance projects Ford is already working on – such as autonomous vehicles.
In February 2017, Ford announced a plan to invest $1 billion during the next five years in a new artificial intelligence software company, Argo AI, which leads development of Ford’s virtual driver system – the computer platform, sensors, and algorithms – for Ford’s first-generation self-driving vehicle program. The new Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Research team will work concurrently with Argo AI and will be able to put greater emphasis on other developing uses of sensor technology and artificial intelligence, and how those developments can be used in autonomous vehicles.
“Our robotics and artificial intelligence researchers will continue to collaborate with the Argo AI team so we can someday put this promising emerging technology to work in future generations of self-driving vehicles,” says Washington.
The research team is already using the existing Ford virtual driver system for continued research without disrupting Argo AI’s ongoing production work. The team is able to use Ford’s research fleet to experiment with emerging sensing technology and try out new ways of leveraging 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,” explains Washington.
Research and Opportunities
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. Ford is already using robotics in manufacturing and logistics, and the new research team will evaluate further advancements in robotics to assist in ergonomically difficult tasks.
Artificial intelligence also plays a big role as part of Ford’s Global Data and Analytic team’s support for sales, marketing and finance, so the team will look to spread the technology to drive smarter decision-making and more personalised experiences.
“Our new research team will continue the relationships we’ve built with startup companies through partnerships, investments and acquisitions,” says Washington. “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.”
Finally, the research team will also lead projects with US 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 Ford is currently developing relationships with. Washington says that the team is especially excited about Ford’s upcoming presence on the University of Michigan campus with the new Ford Motor Company Robotics Building.
“Ford is poised to drive into the future by expanding automation of mobility products and services,” says Washington. “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.”