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Ford hopes to allow plug-in hybrid drivers to use the cloud to their advantage

The cloud isn’t just for storing private photos of celebrities. Its vast potential is just waiting to be tapped by the automotive industry, and Ford plans to take advantage with its plug-in hybrids.

Given the proliferation of advanced cell phone, computing, and location services technology, the way our vehicles operate (and recharge, in the case of plug-ins) is changing rapidly. And according to Ford, it is only a matter of time until that abstract entity known as the cloud begins playing a larger role in the operation of our vehicles.

GreenZone: no gasoline allowed

As reported by Automotive News, Ford is developing a system in partnership with Nokia that will effectively control the powertrain of Ford’s plug-in hybrid vehicles based on the vehicle's location.

The idea comes from the scenario often encountered by drivers of plug-in hybrids with low range: they come across a location or a situation where they would like to drive on electric power only, but the vehicle’s battery has already been depleted and the car is running on gasoline. It could be the end of a long highway trip, in traffic, in a residential area, a park, or regions like central London that incentivize electric driving.

With the Ford GreenZone system using Nokia’s “Here” maps on a mobile device or the car’s navigation system, drivers could specify designated zones where they wish to use only battery power. When the vehicle entered one of these zones, its software would switch to electric-only mode without driver input.

What’s the big deal?

This specific application is not exactly a game-changer. For example, the existing Fusion Energi and C-Max Energi already come with buttons to conserve electric range for a later time, as will most future plug-in hybrids. The difference is that the GreenZone system would take over automatically.

The current system “still has a few years of research left” before entering production, according to Johannes Kristinsson, Ford’s supervisor of advanced connected features. The current prototype system does not yet interact with the cloud.

The importance of this research project lies with its logical conclusion and the potential of the cloud. Ford is designing a system that would allow the driver to select the most efficient route based on everything from live traffic conditions to elevation changes.

In addition, Ford is cognizant of the computing power of the cloud relative to what can be stored onboard a vehicle.

“In the cloud we would have access to much more powerful computational resources,” said Kristinsson. “So we can get much more precise information in the cloud.”

Of course, as cars become increasingly connected the cloud could play a significant role in the ordinary commute. This potential also leads to safety concerns – as we have seen, the cloud can be hacked and manipulated by those with ill intentions. It certainly will be interesting to see how these developments play out.