Not far from a factory in which Ford cars and trucks are assembled, analytics experts in the company's Research and Innovation Center in Dearborn, Michigan are building something entirely different but equally important: complex mathematical models that are helping the automaker sharpen its competitive edge while limiting its environmental impact.
Launched 15 years ago as a small cadre of researchers, the group's size and impact on Ford has grown considerably while its mission is unchanged — chart a path for the company to a cleaner, brighter, better world and stronger business. The group, comprised of scientists, mathematicians, computers modelers and other researchers, is using the latest in analytics and big data to discover ways to minimize Ford's environmental impact and bolster its bottom line by identifying potential risks and opportunities in a number of areas, including:
- Fuel economy: Developed a science-based model that projects CO2 emissions generated by the fleet of vehicles on roads worldwide for the next 50 years, helping Ford set aggressive fuel economy targets yet remain eco-conscious
- Power of choice: Used science and math to show that one particular form of alternative engine power is unlikely to emerge above all others, helping to make the case for a diversified portfolio of powertrains ranging from EcoBoost engines, hybrid and plug-in hybrid technologies, flex-fuel, all-electric, biodiesel, CNG and LPG
- New features: Created sophisticated mathematical models that optimize millions of possible vehicle combinations to give decision makers the tools to construct an eco-conscious and cost-effective global technology roadmap, resulting in products such as Ford Auto Start-Stop
Ford says it considers analytics and big data the next frontier for innovation, competition and productivity. The company continues to expand its use of big data as more and better technologies, methodologies and datasets emerge.
For example, the Ford Fusion Energi plug-in hybrid generates roughly 25 gigabytes of data every hour; which is useful for further improvements in fuel economy and vehicle emission reductions. Yet, Ford researchers are already experimenting with vehicles that generate 10 times that much data.
Some other areas Ford is exploring for sustainability analytics potential:
- Green routing, which optimizes driving routes to reduce a vehicle's impact on local air quality in specific locations, such as near hospitals, schools and in high density residential areas
- Statistical analysis of vehicle usage data to provide insight into consumer acceptance of electric vehicles and the electrification of personal transportation
- Optimal use of current and future biofuels
- Demand and availability of strategic materials used in powertrains, including rare-earth elements, lithium and platinum group metals
- Life-cycle analysis tools aimed at measuring energy and water use — along with greenhouse gas emissions — associated with alternative fuels and materials
"There are so many amazing possibilities to consider for the future impact of data," said John Viera, global director of sustainability and vehicle environmental matters. "The possibilities are not only exciting, they are, in fact, almost endless."
Earlier this year, Ford announced a strategic collaboration that aims to demonstrate how a typical American family can significantly reduce their electricity bills and carbon footprint by integrating home appliance technology with a plug-in vehicle and solar power to achieve an energy-efficient lifestyle. The automaker is partnering with Whirlpool, SunPower, Nest Labs and Eaton on MyEnergi Lifestyle, which showcases how combining renewable energy generation with time-flexible vehicle charging and appliance use can optimize energy consumption in the home.