Make no mistake: Ford's plans to connect more vehicles and to deliver more apps and services on vehicles than ever before will require a great, big, global cloud. Ford's choice, as announced this week, is Microsoft Azure, but it's not a purely public-cloud project.
Ford chose long-time partner Microsoft in large part because it gave it hybrid options to keep potentially privacy-sensitive data from individual vehicles in Ford data centers. Vehicle-specific telemetry and system-health data, like odometer readings, engine oil-life measures, and system fault codes might not seem sensitive, but Ford wants to keep it on-premises, said Don Butler, the company's executive director of connected vehicles and services, in an interview with InformationWeek.
"The data in a vehicle belongs to the owner, and our role is data steward," Butler explained. "Microsoft was ready to support both public and private cloud, whereas with other cloud providers, it was an all-or-nothing proposition."
Of course, Ford has long used deidentified performance data about specific models and versions of vehicles to track potential performance and warranty issues. This sort of aggregated data could be useful to Ford and its dealer network on a public cloud. But no matter where data is stored, Microsoft is helping Ford with the filtering and analysis of the information, Butler said.
"Our Fusion electric vehicle generates 25 gigabytes of data per hour, so if we extracted it all in real time, we would soon run out of storage," Butler said. "There's clearly going to be some onboard processing as well as intelligent querying to make sure that we're getting data that makes sense."
When the Azure-powered Ford Service Delivery Network, launches early this summer, it will initially serve primarily as a content-delivery platform, supporting downloads of updated systems software for Sync 3, the latest version of Ford's voice-activated communications and entertainment system. Where Sync updates used to require laborious manual steps like downloading files onto a USB key from home and then uploading them in the car, Sync 3 has slick, WiFi-supported spooling and caching features that handle software downloads and installation automatically without stopping Sync and requiring user interaction.
Software updates will start with the Sync systems itself, which supports music access, onboard-navigation systems, smartphone integration, and popular mobile apps like music-streaming services. Next up will be software updates to vehicle-control systems, such as power train, traction, and stability-control modules. That could save customers trips to the dealership for recommended or recall-mandated updates.
The Ford Delivery Network will also support MyFord and MyLincoln mobile-connected services, such as remote starting, vehicle finder, and vehicle status indicators for fuel, electric-vehicle charge state, and tire pressure. These features are supported by onboard cellular modems, but Azure will support software updates with the same download approach.
Four examples of software-supported features that Ford will soon be able to modify and upgrade through a Microsoft Azure-powered, global service-delivery network.
In North America, where the network will launch, Ford says it expects to support more than 1.5 million Sync 3-equipped vehicles within the first year, plus tens of thousands of MyFord and MyLincoln-equipped vehicles. The rollout will extend to Europe and Asia starting in 2016, and will be worldwide well before 2020, according to Butler.
"We’re going to see hockey-stick-level growth, and Azure will allow us to quickly ramp up around the globe," he said.