The Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan have been integrally entwined for over 100 years.
Today, dozens of Ford leaders engage with U-M on a weekly basis. Rich Strader, the Vice President at Ford Mobility Platforms and Products, is one of them.
Rich recently presented the annual Michael Korybalski Distinguished Lecture in the College of Engineering’s mechanical engineering department. When we have strong leaders, corporate partners and alumni all rolled up into one dynamic speaker, we love the chance to sit down with them and get some insight into their perspective.
Our organizations are closely aligned. What is your perspective on the U-M/Ford relationship?
One of the things I like best about the U-M/Ford Research Alliance is the ability to come back to campus for project reviews and see things from an industry perspective rather than a commercial perspective. It’s really about coming up with engineering or scientific solutions to a problem, not being influenced by commercial applications of the technology.
A lot of our work at Ford starts with commercial relevance and that leads to incremental change. That’s one of the important goals of the Alliance – it challenges us to think further down the road and try other things. This strategy ends up being a good investment from a financial standpoint as well.
I take the longer view of strategic technology: there are areas where Ford might not be pursuing the research but U-M is, and we see that in joint research presentations through projects we fund. U-M faculty are so knowledgeable in a certain specific area – they’ve figured out all the aspects of it. From Ford’s standpoint, there’s almost no risk in pursuing the ideas with them. They are the subject matter experts. We are fortunate to have the vision and the resources to gain insight from research with people at the top of their field.
And this collaboration matters in that U-M can contribute a different lens than a commercial company could. When you are focused as faculty – or as a student – on a specific, identified topic, solving the problem is the biggest thing, not figuring out how it applies in the real world. That’s where we can partner best.
What has changed over the years?
I’ve been involved for a number of years and have seen the relationship between Ford and U-M evolve. At first, being connected was a good way to meet students, get some research done, and advance things we needed, but it was project by project driven.
Now it feels like a more holistic process and is a much better relationship with university
We are thinking about the future and collaborations to come, and how we can make both institutions better. There’s been a great maturing of the whole alliance project to be a true strategic relationship.
What is your view on the future of mobility?
Years ago Ford’s biggest problem was getting people from A to B. Most people are willing to commute 15-20 minutes from home to work, and before automobiles that narrowed the geographical distance to within your own village or town. When we put people on wheels, that gave them greater opportunity. The design issue was that people didn’t have good ways to move around. That design issue now has shifted. In major populated areas, wheels aren’t the best option.
We went from building vehicles to making people able to move better.
A couple of big things will be helpful going forward, one of which is a more highly technically capable infrastructure in cities. This will help traffic flow, create better orchestration, and will need to heavily connect vehicles with pedestrians and objects. A lot of technology can be applied and much of the opportunity starts from the technology of connecting things together.
At our Ford Labs Center in Ann Arbor, our city insights group has created a way to simulate an ‘as is’ state of the city and ‘potential’ state of the city. They can change assumptions that affect simulations like policy to create HOV lanes or bike lanes isolated from the curb – all to simulate the city impact and traffic impact. This helps cities see what and where to invest in infrastructure.
Another key aspect of mobility are places like Mcity and the Ford Robotics Building at U-M. They provide the layout to do lab work and testing. U-M is actively contributing to solutions to mobility problems in these spaces.
We look at Mcity as the lab environment where can reproduce and solve problems, and our Corktown project as a real-world test environment. To provide the future of mobility, you need to have both.
What is coming for Corktown?
Right now, the overlying important principle is integrating into the community. We want to make sure this is not just a Ford facility, but that we are one of many thriving businesses in the space.
There are several sets of buildings and we’re trying to find a personality for each one and develop partners in the right places. We also want to integrate Corktown into the passenger rail system and greenway that goes to the river.
I’m involved in some of the technology planning and connection for partners that will be there, including the cellular networks. In Corktown, cell companies will be integrated into the infrastructure itself with 5G networks making smaller, more dense intelligent hubs.
We’re also trying to make it a connected research corridor from Corktown to Ann Arbor that optimizes Detroit, U-M, and serves as a real-world test environment.
It’s an exciting venture, and I’m really looking forward to it. Part of my team will be on site for the real-world testing environment component.
What was computer science at U-M like when you were a student?
In the College of Engineering computer science group, I was able in my later years to do free study for course credit. What now is considered ‘engaged learning’, I got the chance to apply when I was a U-M student. I undertook computer engineering projects for the Atmospheric and Oceanic Sciences department on a complete study of the Great Lakes. It allowed me to see something I was working on from a technical standpoint be actually applied in the real world.
It was rewarding because the university has such a broad reach. As a student you don’t know how much you can do. There is so much potential to study, try new things, travel. This experience really was a fantastic memory.
What is your advice for U-M students?
Don’t underestimate how well you’re prepared to take on real world challenges. You may come out of U-M hoping you can get a job and make a living, but U-M has prepared you to serve and have a bigger purpose. Use your influence and good intent to bring about real change. You are well prepared.
Any parting thoughts?
I appreciate the opportunity to be engaged with the University of Michigan. I’m grateful to be connected through our partnership and thankful that I had chance to attend U-M, interact the way I did, and come back to now partner with U-M to make the world a better place.