Ford’s Autonomic Pairs With Alibaba Cloud On Mobility Hub for China

Ford—one of the automakers competing in China’s huge car market—is now making a bid to provide China’s leading software infrastructure hub dedicated to streamlining transportation by connecting cars and riders with mobility services.

Ford’s recently acquired unit Autonomic, which co-created the automaker’s Transportation Mobility Cloud (TMC), inked a deal Tuesday to partner with Alibaba Cloud, the cloud computing division of Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba. Together, the two companies plan to offer a standardized platform where all participants in the transportation ecosystem—including Ford’s rival automakers—can build services, from their own ride-hailing apps to entertainment channels for passengers marking time in self-driving cars.

That’s been the North America business model for Palo Alto, CA-based Autonomic, which became a wholly owned subsidiary of Ford Smart Mobility early this year and has been scaling up its operations. Autonomic makes money through software subscription fees from users of Ford’s open, Web-based transportation app development platform. Autonomic will operate similarly as part of the arrangement under its new deal in China, and it will be a customer of Alibaba Cloud’s for Web-based computing and data storage.

But the Alibaba Cloud relationship goes farther than that—the new business partners will also collaborate to create their own mobility product offerings, to their mutual advantage, says Gavin Sherry, co-founder and CEO of Autonomic. Ford’s transportation connectivity hub was created to accelerate the growth of mobility-related businesses, and Sherry sees China as a ripe territory for that.

“China is one of the most, if not the most, dynamic mobility markets in the world,” Sherry says. In the time since he lived in China in 2010 and 2011, he says, there has been an unprecedented rate of change in Chinese business and technology innovation.

In addition to rapidly accelerating car sales in China, businesses have already jumped on vehicle connectivity as a conduit to Chinese consumers, Sherry says. Cars are linked to social media and messaging apps, and technology areas such as artificial intelligence and voice recognition enhance opportunities to personalize the “in-cabin” experience, he says.

Through the TMC, Autonomic is aiming to provide a common transportation information infrastructure for China’s mobility enterprises and its smart cities, orchestrating interactions among a multitude of smartphone-equipped travelers, service providers, public transit systems, and vehicles studded with sensors. In the ideal use of such a mobility hub, services that work well on their own, such as commuter train systems, could become more valuable if they were coordinated with other businesses, such as shuttle fleets that serve train stations.

Autonomic has created building blocks for a range of mobility applications, which are made available to its customers through APIs (application programming interfaces) as the foundations for software that is freely modified by outside developers. For example, TMC apps can send instructions to vehicles remotely, and wirelessly transmit software configuration updates to connected cars.

Sherry says it’s too early to say exactly what features Autonomic and Alibaba Cloud will jointly develop in China, but the focus is on quickly building services relevant to the region’s specific needs.

For example, Sherry says he hopes to see the new partners “power up” ride-hailing, ride-sharing, and scooter- and bike-sharing.

Other potential areas of interest include fuel utilization and navigational guidance, routing prediction, and better integrations of cameras and phones with vehicles, Sherry says. Many consumer-facing opportunities also arise from the growth of ride-hailing and autonomous vehicles. “Sitting in a car as passengers means more options around their time, such as entertainment and planning their meals,” he says.

Would Autonomic and Alibaba Cloud consider creating a go-to consumer app that would aggregate all the transportation options and multimodal trip plans—from walking and biking, to public transit, to rides-on-demand from multiple competing companies?

“That’s a great example of the things we could achieve together,” Sherry says.

And might Alibaba, with its track record in e-commerce, be interested in creating marketplaces for the sale of auto parts and supplies, or for repair and maintenance services? Sherry says it’s an interesting question to ask, given Alibaba’s history as a “marketplace for everything.” The idea is not currently on the new partners’ agenda for discussion, he says, but it’s “in the realm of possibilities.”

Through Ford’s Transportation Mobility Cloud, Autonomic could help international automakers integrate into the Chinese market without changing their technology, Sherry says. For example, the TMC could handle their compliance with personal data privacy laws that vary widely across international boundaries, he says.

Data generated and passed through the TMC platform is owned by the people who produced it, Sherry says. “Data sent to us is not ours,” he says. The TMC processes and analyzes customer data, but it’s for the benefit of those customers.

Autonomic is handling concerns about data migration and access to intellectual property by segregating its China operations “physically and logically” from those in other regions, Sherry says. For example, data from the United States won’t be shared with the TMC in China, and “data produced in China is not leaving Chinese shores.”

Autonomic has set up an office in Shanghai and is hiring a team there.

The Autonomic deal is one of the first projects created under a broader cooperation agreement signed by Dearborn, MI-based Ford (NYSE: Fand Alibaba in December. The mobility collaboration covers artificial intelligence and digital marketing as well as cloud computing, connectivity, and mobility services.

Photo by of Shanghai by Flickr user xiquinhosilva,
via a Creative Commons license

Trending on Xconomy