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CES 2017: CEO Mark Fields Steering Ford Into A Connected-Car Future

At the Consumer Technology Association’s (CTA’s) annual Leaders in Technology dinner Friday night, Ford president/CEO Mark Fields depicted a radically different American landscape that’s being driven by connected-car technology.

The changes, he told a who’s who audience in his keynote address, will impact the way we work, play and travel as profoundly as those wrought over a century ago by the company’s titular founder, Henry Ford. Indeed, the advent of the mass-produced automobile, Fields reminded, yielded higher wages and a new middle class; led to the development of suburbs to house them and roadway infrastructure to get them there; altered the way cities were designed; and even influenced how teens dated.

Today, as we find ourselves “deep into a major technological renaissance” fueled by advances in robotics, artificial intelligence and the IoT, the car is once again poised to help transform our cities and the way we live our lives with the advent of wirelessly-charged autonomous electric vehicles, he said.

These connected cars will help eliminate traffic jams and reduce air pollution by sharing road conditions, planning routes dynamically and locating available parking. What’s more, these mobile marvels will also identify occupants’ personal preferences upon entering any vehicle, and will finally remove the worry of running on empty.

To realize its vision of seamless, multi-model transportation, “Ford must evolve and change,” Fields said. “We’re no longer just a car company; now we are an automobile and mobility company.”

He said the groundwork was laid 10 years ago at the 2007 CES when he and Bill Gates announced the introduction of SYNC, Ford’s software platform to support mobile devices in the car. Today, the Cloud-based system can be found in 15 million vehicles worldwide, he said, and Ford is working with Toyota to establish industry-driven standards for car-based apps to further populate the platform.

In addition, select FordPass vehicles can also be operated remotely thanks to onboard modems (think warming up a car in winter before stepping outside), and projections call for some 20 million modem-equipped Ford vehicles worldwide over the next five years.

Ford is also adding further smarts to its fleet with the integration of Amazon’s Alexa virtual digital assistant, which was announced earlier this week at CES.

Looking further out, Fields said his company’s electric car assortment will exceed gas engine vehicles within the next 15 years, and that autonomous autos will be commonplace by 2021.

Central to these developments is connectivity, which he called “the foundation of everything we’re doing.” To that end, the company is doubling its staffing in software technicians as the mobile car market experiences 30 percent annual growth and blossoms into a $130 billion market by 2019.

Ford has also committed to keeping some of its electric car production local by expanding a plant in Michigan, and has taken a strong stance on privacy by establishing four core principles around it: clarity, simplicity, transparency and value.

“We’re merely stewards of data, and must be vigilant in protecting it,” Fields said.

The CEO closed by reminding the audience that Ford’s isn’t a solo journey. “We need industry cooperation,” he said, as well as inspired leadership from city planners and even grassroots community organizations to fully realize a mobile car future.

And the stakes, Fields said, couldn’t be higher: “This is the defining challenge of our generation,” he declared, “and improving lives will be the measure of our success.”

Separately, in opening remarks, Gary Shapiro, CTA president/CEO and the dinner’s master of ceremonies, underscored CES’s increasingly essential role in the global fabric.

“Almost every aspect of our daily lives is being connected,” he noted, “and every industry is becoming a technology industry.”

  The increased focus on tech is reflected in CES 2017’s stats: 2.6 million square feet of exhibit space this year, the most ever, and 165,000 attendees, setting a two-day record, Shapiro said.

Measured by another metric, despite the advent of Uber and Lyft there was a 40 percent increase in taxi pickups over the first days of the show, to some 28,000 rides – proving, Shapiro said, that “the pie can keep growing” amid the introduction of new technologies.