Ford exec points to ‘great progress’ on driverless cars

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Ford is making “great progress” towards its goal of deploying its first fully self-driving car by 2021, says the automaker’s top research executive.

But don’t expect Ford to be first.

“We don’t worry too much about where the competitors are,” Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer. “What we are worried about is how do we bring this technology to market in a way that’s a fit (for customers). And that’s what we are focused on,”

He spoke as Ford gave reporters rides in the company’s self-driving Ford Fusion test car.

Ford is relying on Argo AI — a company co-founded last year by Google car project veteran Bryan Salesky and Uber engineer Peter Rander — to take the lead on the development of the brains of its self-driving car. Ford acquired a majority stake in Argo AI in February.

“I think we are extremely well-positioned because we’ve got a technology company working with us that understands how to build the robot,” Washington said recently. “And we’ve got an automotive manufacturer underneath us ….with more than 100 years of experience of systems integration.”

Washington has been a top executive at Ford since joining the automaker in 2014 who now is taking on even more responsibility under Ford CEO Jim Hackett. At Ford, Washington oversees the automaker’s advanced research and engineering efforts and gained the additional title of chief technology officer in May.

That essentially gives Washington oversight of all of Ford’s autonomous vehicle efforts as well as oversight of the development of a wide range of other new technology.

Before joining Ford, Washington was vice president of the Advanced Technology Center at Lockheed Martin and was one of the most prominent African-Americans in aerospace. Now he is one of  eight top executives at Ford who reports directly to Hackett.

We spoke with Washington about his new role and Ford’s autonomous vehicle programs. The following is edited for clarity and brevity, and includes some additional comments from Washington’s recent blog post on Medium, which included an announcement that Ford is creating a new artificial intelligence research team.

Question: So, tell us about your new role, and what you will now be doing at Ford?

Answer: I kind of wear two hats for the company. I am the vice president of research and advanced engineering … and that didn’t change. And with Jim Hackett coming to our company as CEO, he really wants to put an emphasis on technology and its promise for enabling us to be a great business. And so he invited me to be the chief technology officer to help drive that vision. … And so that’s a new role. And in that new role, I am really just looking to do what naturally comes to any executive who oversees a group that does that kind of technology work.”

Q: How do the various pieces of Ford’s autonomous vehicle program fit together? You have Ford’s own development team, Ford Smart Mobility and Argo AI. How does it all work?

A: We recently welcomed Sherif Marakby back to Ford (from Uber). Sherif owns autonomous vehicles at Ford, and so his job is to define for us where we are going to play in the market, and how we are going to bring autonomous vehicle technology to bear and put it into the market.

But building the autonomous vehicle has three parts — three big parts. There is the virtual driver, and that’s Argo’s job. That’s the part that replaces the driver with a robot. And that includes software and sensors.

Ford product development is building the vehicle and the autonomous vehicle team is part of that and we are working on the integration of the virtual driver into the vehicle.

Washington elaborated on the role of Ford’s internal autonomous vehicle team in his Thursday blog post on Medium:

We are announcing the creation of the robotics and artificial intelligence research team as part of Ford research and advanced engineering. This move aligns multiple disciplines under one team for a more concerted effort as we increasingly come to understand the potential for robotics and artificial intelligence. The move also serves to further advance projects we’ve already presented — such as our autonomous vehicle development program, and those we aren’t quite ready to reveal.

Q: It’s only been a few months since Ford publicly stated its goal to commercially launch a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 but can you tell us how that effort is going and how fast you are making progress?

A: They are going great, they are absolutely going great…. They have some fabulous momentum. Bryan Salesky and Peter Rander, the co-founders of Argo AI, have attracted a really great team already. Over 100 employees are already on board at Argo. So, I am excited about the path they are on. They are making great progress.

Q: It can be difficult from the outside to really know who is leading the race to develop driverless cars. Is Ford leading? Or have you fallen behind competitors like Waymo or even GM? And how much do you think it matters right now?

A: Well I would start by saying there is so much hype out there its hard to sort through it. And you said it well when you said it kind of doesn’t matter. We don’t worry too much about where the competitors are. What we are worried about is how do we bring this technology to market in a way that’s fit. And that’s what we are focused on.

The NEW TOYOTA – C-HR review

Although Scion was snuffed out last year, the spirit of the entry-level brand lives on in Toyota models like the new C-HR subcompact SUV crossover. Although the C-HR was originally destined to wear a Scion badge in the States, it was a relatively painless process for Toyota to pivot and bring the funky crossover in as a Toyota. (The C-HR was already slated to be sold as a Toyota in overseas markets.) With vehicles such as the Nissan Juke, the Kia Soul, and the similarly sized Honda HR-V maintaining steady sales, it was critical that Toyota field a subcompact crossover in the United States.

Millennial Magic

Like most organizations with a product to sell these days, Toyota wasted no opportunity to reference the M word, peppering its pre-test-drive spiel with all things millennial. After a day in the saddle in and around Texas Hill Country near Austin, we think Toyota should relax the pitch a bit and take a slightly more organic approach.

In keeping with its Scion roots, the C-HR’s trim hierarchy is simple with the XLE ($23,460) as the base model and the XLE Premium ($25,310) as, uh, the base model with a few tech and appointment upgrades. Standard equipment includes cloth-trimmed front bucket seats with six-way adjustability, a leather-wrapped steering wheel, Bluetooth, one USB port, an auto-dimming rearview mirror with backup camera, and dual-zone automatic climate control.

The XLE Premium gets heated front seats, an eight-way driver’s seat, blind-spot monitoring, rear cross-traffic alert, and proximity entry and start. Those spunky two-tone models with the white roof and side mirrors? Those are R-code C-HRs, a treatment that is the sole available factory option in your choice of three colors: Blue Eclipse Metallic, Ruby Flare Pearl, and the R-code–exclusive Radiant Green Mica. Simple, right?

Here’s where it gets funky. Due largely to its development under the Scion banner and that brand’s weirdo radio head unit, Apple CarPlay, Android Auto, and navigation (very few Scions ever had factory navigation) are not available on the C-HR. For a small, affordable, and fashionable car marketed directly at millennials, these seem to be egregious omissions. That said, the Bluetooth works fine, and using your phone in a mount is a perfectly workable navigation solution. Also strange: The eight-way driver’s seat is entirely manual in operation except for power-operated lumbar support, which is akin to fitting a vintage mechanical watch with battery-powered dial illumination.

The interior quality suffices for a sub-$25K vehicle without feeling cut-rate or spartan. There are hard, embossed-plastic door panels, but they feel and look up to the task. While there appears to be no glovebox, the lower dash conceals a tiny latch that opens a big storage bin. The door openings both front and rear are deceptively large, and we found enough adjustment to the front seats and the tilting-and-telescoping steering wheel for a pair of six-foot-plus journalists to get comfortable, save for a little B-pillar intrusion on the wider of the two.

The back seat can be relatively spacious for such a tiny footprint (the 103.9-inch wheelbase is 4.3 inches longer than the Juke’s, while the width is up only 1.2 inches on the Nissan), depending on how the front seats are set. But when those seats were positioned where we were comfortable, foot and legroom in the rear were reduced to prison-restraint levels. Still, based largely on elbow- and knee room, our first impressions are that the C-HR’s front compartment is a tad more spacious and comfortable than those of the HR-V and the Juke.

You Gotta Spin to Win

Despite its high-hipped and quirky-for-a-Toyota “Transformer meets sturdy hamster gymnast” exterior design, the C-HR’s dynamic personality is pure Toyota. The naturally aspirated 2.0-liter inline-four making 144 horsepower at 6100 rpm and 139 lb-ft of torque at 3900 rpm is an engine that needs to be overtly stressed if you want to have any fun. Of course, a continuously variable automatic (CVT)—the only transmission available in the C-HR—has few qualms about keeping the engine at the high end of the tachometer, especially when Sport mode is selected. The CVT, however, can easily be caught napping when exiting corners, taking a second or more to respond and leaving the driver with an embarrassing case of torqus interruptus. A quick tug of the shift lever allows the driver to hang on to the seven simulated fixed-ratio “steps” longer than necessary for sane operation. The C-HR will never be mistaken for a land rocket. Long, uphill sections can be torturous, and if you’re coming into the C-HR from anything but an economy car or another subcompact crossover, it will take some time to get used to the horsepower rationing. We’re convinced a slick manual would do wonders to improve the situation.

Kudos are warranted for the chassis tuning. Reportedly refined on the Nürburgring—so were our blender and socks, probably—the C-HR runs a strut front and multilink rear suspension with Sachs dampers at all four corners. Impacts through the standard 18-inch wheels are nicely cushioned, and the setup is tuned so that body control doesn’t loosen over broken pavement or go flabby in cornering, nor will the car attempt to take flight when cresting hills at speed. The electrically assisted steering is the weak link, offering little feel or feedback even when firmed up in Sport mode; indications of pending turmoil are signaled by tire squeal long before the steering wheel weighs in on the subject. The brakes offer smooth, linear response, but any data regarding their strength will have to wait until we can strap our test gear to the C-HR.

Unlike the Juke and the HR-V (and the majority of other subcompact crossovers), the C-HR wasn’t conceived with all-wheel drive in mind. While this is not a deterrent to us, there are consumers who feel they must have all-wheel drive. To them we say invest in a good set of winter tires, since the C-HR isn’t prepared for much more than off-road excursions to the overflow lot at Coachella, anyway, given the Toyota’s 5.9 inches of ground clearance and standard all-season tires.

Toyota has big plans for the C-HR, with hopes to sell 30,000 units by the end of 2017 and double that in 2018. Those looking for a funky alternative to the usual suspects—and not put off by the lack of Apple CarPlay, all-wheel drive, or factory navigation—will find the C-HR at Toyota showrooms in April.

2017 NBA Finals: Biggest Winners – Golden State Warriors

The Golden State Warriors completed one of the greatest all-time playoff performances in NBA history with a 129-120 win over the Cleveland Cavaliers to win the championship four games to one. The Warriors finished their playoff run as the first team with a 16-1 record in the postseason. It marks the team’s second NBA title for the Warriors in three years as they staked a claim as a modern-day dynasty.

Here are the biggest winners and losers from the 2017 NBA Finals.

Kevin Durant of the Golden State Warriors celebrates after being named Bill Russell NBA Finals Most Valuable Player after defeating the Cleveland Cavaliers 129-120 in Game 5 to win the 2017 NBA Finals at ORACLE Arena on June 12, 2017 in Oakland, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

WINNERS

Kevin Durant

Durant lamented that he was sick of finishing second (draft, MVP voting, Finals) in a 2013 Sports Illustrated cover story. Durant is second no more.

The four-time scoring champ crushed his good-guy image when he left Oklahoma City to don the black hat in the Bay Area as a free agent last summer. Some will view Durant as piggy-backing on the Warriors’ success, but history should judge Durant more kindly.  The addition of the 2014 MVP made the Warriors’ attack even more lethal. He was the runaway choice as the NBA Finals MVP with 30-plus points in all five games, just the sixth player in NBA history to do that. He averaged 35 points per game for the series on otherworldly shooting of 56%, 47% and 93% for field goals, three-pointers and free throws. His pull-up three-pointer in the final minute of Game 3 was arguably the biggest shot of the series.

ABC

Sure, ABC would have loved an extra game or two in this series, but the first four games marked the highest ratings for an NBA series since Michael Jordan won his sixth and final title with the Chicago Bulls in 1998. Expect Game 5 ratings to be through the roof as well. The star-laden Finals matchup was a plus after regular season ratings dipped 5% on ESPN/ABC in the first year of the league’s nine-year, $24 billion media deal with Walt Disney and Time Warner.

JPMorgan Chase

The banking giant was in a win-win situation with ties to both Stephen Curry and LeBron James, but the Warriors were definitely the preferred choice by JPMorgan Chase. Chase secured naming rights last year to the $1 billion arena the Warriors are set to open in 2019. The 20-year deal worth an estimated $300 million is the priciest naming rights deal ever for a U.S. arena. Curry is a key component of the bank’s “Mastery” ad campaign as well.

Joe Lacob, Peter Guber

Lacob and Guber led a group that paid $450 million for the Warriors in 2010 at a time when the Warriors had one playoff appearance in the previous 16 seasons. Good timing. The Warriors are a juggernaut on and off the court. They set the record for regular season wins with 73 in the one year they did not win the title over the past three seasons. The Warriors were worth $2.6 billion in Forbes’ latest NBA franchise valuations and the on-court dominance will goose demand and pricing with the Warriors set to move into the Chase Center in 2019. Look for the Warriors to challenge the New York Knicks and Los Angeles Lakers in years to come for the title of the NBA’s most valuable team.

Steve Kerr

Steve Kerr becomes just the 14th head coach to win two NBA titles. A third would put him alone in sixth place. Kerr missed 11 straight wins by the Warriors during the postseason as Mike Brown took the reins while Kerr recovered from complications from a 2015 back surgery. Kerr’s career regular season winning percentage as a head coach over three seasons is .841, a mile ahead of second place Phil Jackson at .704. Kerr’s playoff win percentage is also tops for head coaches at .758. The Cavs’ Tyron Lue ranks second for playoff performance.

LeBron James

James was competing in his seventh straight NBA Finals, and he proved once again that he is the best player on the planet. He wrapped his Finals run with another monster game with 41 points, 13 rebounds and eight assists. James arguably deserved the Finals MVP award. He is the first player to ever average a triple-double in the Finals and the Cavs played the Warriors to a draw with LeBron on the floor, but were outscored by 28 points in the limited time James was on the bench over five games. The Cavs would have ranked among the NBA’s two worst teams with James on the bench by one metric.

LOSERS

LeBron James

James finishes on both sides of the ledger. The Warriors were huge favorites to win the 2017 NBA Finals, but the loss still hurts James in his quest to eclipse Jordan as the greatest player in NBA history. His Finals record now stands at 3-5 and the LeBron-haters will point to the huge disparity compared to Jordan, who won all six of his NBA Finals.

Teams Outside Cleveland & Oakland

This year’s matchup made it the first time in league history the same two teams met three straight years in the NBA Finals. We are likely looking at four straight in 12 months. The Warriors and Cavs are already overwhelming favorites in Vegas to win their respective conferences during the 2017-18 season. Golden State is the favorite at 2/3 to win the title with Cleveland next at 3/1. The Boston Celtics and San Antonio Spurs are well behind at 12/1.

NBA Fans

NBA and network execs got the Finals they wanted, but none of the games came down to the wire outside of Game 3. It concluded a dud of an NBA playoff where five of the 15 series ended in a sweep and three others lasted five games. Only two went the max seven games.