Ford is doing much in the Connected Vehicle Technologies space. Its award-winning SYNC 3 system incorporates much of the functionality desired by consumers today. At the Geneva Motor Show, we caught up with Jan Schroll, Ford of Europe’s Supervisor for Connectivity Application, to discuss the challenges of integrating connectivity and the road ahead.
just-auto: In January 2017, Ford announced the creation of the SmartDeviceLink (SDL) Consortium. With the emerging popularity of SDL, can you foresee a scaling back of the work with Apple and Google, regarding CarPlay and Android Auto respectively?
Jan Schroll: There are no plans to discontinue our engagement with Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. We are building more pillars for the customer to choose from. We are enabling the customer to have the ultimate power of choice in terms of connectivity. We are continuing the Apple CarPlay and Android Auto support and we will further strengthen our Applink and SDL. The creation of the consortium will strengthen our SDL and Applink engagements. Of course, as something Ford founded, SDL is something we will strengthen further down the road. We’re also enabling mobile navigation applications to work with Applink and SDL.
j-a: How many applications does the Applink platform now support?
JS: It varies by market. Here in Europe we have around 20 and in the US, we have 70 or so. The US has far more.
j-a: What explains the difference? More developers, other challenges?
JS: Sometimes we have partners that are regionally specific. For example, a Spanish bank, or a German newspaper. These are not applicable in all markets. It’s very interesting that a lot of local app developers are interested in creating apps for the platform.
The main reason for difference is the cadence of the technology. Applink was first released in the US. It has been established longer. Even on Ford SYNC with Applink, developers have been interested in the platform. With the SYNC 3 systems, the bigger screen gives developers even more technical possibilities to interact with the customer. In the US they also have a lot of local radio stations.
j-a: Are there any particular apps you are excited about for the future?
JS: Yes, actually in Germany, we have just added a catastrophe warning app. It only works for Germany at the moment, but it beams live catastrophe information directly into the car.
j-a: When we are talking ‘catastrophe’, how disastrous are we talking? Storm Doris? Or something worse?
JS: It covers storms, black ice, chemical accidents in plants, etc. It’s done through official data released by the German authorities. For example, the suspected terror attack in Munich. They put out an alert and they can begin to manage the traffic quicker. They plan to expand to Austria and Switzerland I think and maybe then they will further expand.
j-a: Does Ford have a lot of control over how “real-time” the apps are?
JS: No, they’re not Ford data. They’re not Ford-derived or -processed data. We manage the integration of the app into the car, but the accuracy of the app isn’t something we control. That’s the Applink principle, right? We’re not making demands that would really limit developers. The developer is fully in charge of getting his data from the cloud.
j-a: Regarding voice control, there are some features in the SYNC 3 which are not controlled by voice control. What are the challenges with this?
JS: On the one hand, for voice control specifically, we have to distinguish between the on-board system, where you don’t require any connectivity for it to work – there are some differences in Ford’s built-in system and Apple or Google’s voice control systems – which rely on an online connection. If you have an app that runs offline, you can use voice control all the time. If the app requires a connection, then it’s limited. That’s one of the key elements of our built-in system. We still have huge areas in Europe where we still have limited or no 4G or 3G coverage. For those customers specifically, we need to serve them an onboard solution.
j-a: There isn’t any toggling between certain screens, too, for example, Apple CarPlay or Android Auto. I probably only notice this more as I test out both handsets for my work, but still, what is this about?
JS: I agree, it is somewhat difficult to flip between the examples you gave. This is because you have to really hit the ‘escape’ button in the Android Auto or CarPlay environments really accurately. Unfortunately, that’s under the control of Apple or Google. We can’t just reposition escape points, we have to use the ones they provide. That’s why it can be sometimes ‘clumsy’. I imagine this is done quite deliberately to ensure the customer says in their ecosystem.
j-a: So, there’s a lot to look forward to for SYNC4?
JS: I wouldn’t tie apps to a specific SYNC generation. Applink is just a platform which will keep growing regardless of the SYNC system. Some of the refinements of the SYNC system, like the bigger display screen, have encouraged more developers to get involved with Applink, but the products are separate. SYNC is the hardware platform and we continue to evolve the software in it. It means customers that have the SYNC 3 system will be eligible for the software updates moving forward.
j-a: Recently Ford said it was not going to consider the Level 4 autonomy and that there may be a need to jump straight to Level 5?
JS: Actually, what we are confirming – our CEO Mark Fields has said – we are skipping the Level 3. We are further evolving driver assist features up to level 2 and in parallel we are working on Level 4 vehicles for commercial applications. That’s what the plans are. We’ll start to launch an SAE Level 4 capable fully autonomous car in 2021 in the US, in a commercial application (ride hailing/ride sharing services).
j-a: How does the patchy 4G coverage and on-board requirements for storage affect hardware requirements?
JS: There’s a definite trade-off between the processing power and the features you can offer. Because if you have on-board, off-board system, you have a tremendous amount of processing power at your fingertips immediately. In the car we have a small computer, with an integrated microchip with sufficient code produced for it, to bring enough features into the car. Moving forward, we – in the very long-term – will be aiming to move processing power from the car into the cloud to offer even better services. The cloud not only has more processing power but also holds more data. The key challenge, or opportunity, for the auto makers is to find a very good, very seamless way of merging the on-board content with the off-board content. You have to guarantee a certain minimum standard of features in the car, but you then have to cleverly link the cloud-connected features into it, so when customers have the coverage, they can utilise the full amount of data. You still have to be very competitive, even without a connection.
j-a: Would you have a timeline for that?
JS: I would say [vaguely] in the coming years. You’ll have heard FordPass Connect is coming early next year. We’ll be putting a modem into the car and we’ll be offering connectivity and WiFi hot spotting, via our partner Vodafone. It’ll be the network provider in Europe.
j-a: Will that cost the consumer?
JS: We haven’t yet confirmed any pricing.
j-a: What kind of influence do you have over what direction the MNOs take to bring the end goal of full, reliable coverage?
JS: We are working very closely with Vodafone to ensure they remain a very competitive provider. I can’t go into business insights, of course, but yes, there’s collaboration. We’ve joined the 5G Automotive Association but at the moment, it’s too early to say anything really.