How analytics helped Ford turn its fortunes

Ford is using big data to drive virtually every aspect of its global turnaround.

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Ford currently offers three kinds of hybrid cars: two plug-in models and one electric model. All are equipped with an embedded modem that customers can enable on an opt-in basis to stream data about vehicle performance back to the manufacturer.

"We gather data every time the customer plugs in. We know where they're plugging in, how many gas miles they drove, how many electric miles, how often they plug in and how often they take trips. It's helping to shape where we go next with products," says Mike Tinskey, director of vehicle electrification and infrastructure. Still, "our big data [from vehicles] is relative for now. It's small but growing," he says.

It's also extremely valuable, especially when combined with other data from social media sites.

"It's how we get to know our customers better," says Cavaretta. "If we know how people are using their vehicle and what they're saying about it, we can then look at how it relates to our internal business processes." When integrated, the data creates a veritable heat map of where improvements need to be made.

Ford also provides reports back to the drivers. "We're taking the big data and processing it for all stakeholders as a monthly report," Tinskey says, noting that customers receive a link to a customized monthly report detailing their usage and vehicle performance.

Intersecting the Internet of Things

Tinskey, Cavaretta and others on Ford's analytics team anticipate that, increasingly, vehicle data will be combined with other types of internal and external data via the Internet of Things. That could enable customers to do things like tune their cars' engines to individual specifications and pay discounted rates for the electricity they use to recharge, depending on the time of day or night that they drive and/or recharge their vehicles.

"The really cool thing is we know where these customers are charging and we know what electricity generation looks like in their ZIP codes. We have a grid generation database of all the ZIP codes in the United States, and we tie that data together with charging data," explains Tinskey.

"What we're proposing is that as we reach critical mass, vehicles could respond to calls from the utility to scale back [consumption]. One scenario is that customers would delay charging their cars when power demand is high and the utility would compensate them by charging them a lower rate," he says. The scenario is similar to programs already in place for heating and cooling homes. Tinskey notes, for example, that his home air conditioner is on a separate meter "and I enjoy lower rates whenever I use it in exchange for turning it off or down during certain hours when the utility calls for that."

The Internet of Things enables the combination of internal, external and vehicle data to provide new services, says Cavaretta.

"It could be that the vehicle is a mobile sensor platform connected to sensors in the road or in streetlights to monitor traffic conditions, weather conditions and energy usage. It could then communicate information to the vehicle and change the vehicle's behavior. The ability to take information embedded in sensors in the environment and then better understand how to modify the vehicle or optimize business processes is the real key," he says.

The bottom line: Big data is only going to get bigger at Ford, which has clearly tied its future to the power of analytics.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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