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Ford plans to develop a connected car open-source platform

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Ford Transportation Mobility Cloud paves the way for other automakers to jump in

Photo by Amelia Holowaty Krales / The Verge

If there’s a common theme in Ford Motor Company’s approach to the future of transportation, it’s that there needs to be some rules. Perhaps it’s that it was caught flat-footed when numerous other automakers were investing in self-driving technology or partnering up with Silicon Valley tech companies left and right. Today, Ford thinks it’s on the path toward developing a platform for connected cars that everyone can, and should, play along with.

On Tuesday, Ford announced an extensive set of initiatives to enhance the development of connected cars. Among the multi-pronged approach are ongoing plans to work with Qualcomm on V2X communications for cities, cyclists, and cars. It also highlighted a partnership with Postmates. There’s just one catch in all of this: everyone has to agree this is the way to go. That’s where Ford’s relationship with Autonomic comes in as they work together to develop the Ford Transportation Mobility Cloud, a platform that, if it is successful, will connect cities and cars together.

“Ford is taking a strong stand for the industry to develop a set of rules,” Autonomic CEO Sunny Madra told The Verge in advance of Ford CEO Jim Hackett’s keynote speech.

Ford first announced its investment in Palo Alto-based Autonomic in October. In a Medium post released Tuesday, Madra and Rich Strader said Autonomic was the first step in creating the Transportation Mobility Cloud, the open-sourced platform for companies and cities to join if they want to make the most of the connected world we’re supposed to be closing in on.

“If we play our cards right, we can help allow for millions of people to move into cities and keep streets less congested, not more,” the post reads. “We can connect people living in transit deserts to the city center for better jobs. We can manage our curbs better, remove parked and idling cars, and instead plant more trees and share fresh air with more in our community.”

In addition to connecting cars and drivers to services, Ford wants to connect cities to the cars. “Think of something as simple as pollution,” Madra said to The Verge. “We want a city to define a geofence that would make it so any hybrid vehicle operates in an electric mode there if the city needs to cut down on pollution. Cities can impact their constituents by creating rules around different types of scenarios.”

A similar approach could also work for congestion charges or tolls or express lanes, he said, in order to combat some of the transportation problems cities face, especially in urban areas.

Fleet and commercial operators could be most impacted by this vision. Ford pledges that it will have the largest connected car fleet in the coming years. It already operates its Chariot ride-share vans in a handful of cities using its large Transit vans. But Madra said the cloud is meant to work with the existing SYNC 3 platform that’s been in new Ford vehicles for a couple of years now, so even consumers with older cars may eventually be pulled into this greater connected universe for tasks such as curbside pickups at a store.

“There are a whole bunch of new services that are not end-user specific, but also create a giant impact,” Madra said. He doesn’t think the idea of getting a host of automakers and other companies to join their platform is so far-fetched. He said it was largely similar to previous collaborations with other automakers. Ford has worked with General Motors on common transmissions, such as the 10-speed auto. “Ford and the industry shouldn’t do this alone,” Madra said. “The big takeaway here is that this is for the benefit of the entire industry.”

It’s a sweeping, ambitious vision for altering the digital infrastructure, and it introduces new questions about automakers’ involvement in the transportation landscape. Ford has a long history of doing more than just building cars. In World War II, it, along with other Detroit-based companies, contributed to the war effort by building B52 bombers. In that case, the objective was clear. What Ford and every other automaker are struggling to figure out now is where it’s all going.