Plug-in hybrids that can run on electric motors or internal combustion engines may soon be able to pick and predict their powertrain use depending on location and past driving habits.

It’s part of a collaboration between Ford, with their years of driver behavior research, and Google Prediction API, which can make useful predictions in real-time using that historical data.

Ford first announced that collaboration at Google I/O back in May. Today, the automaker will demonstrate the technology publicly for the first time, showing off a cloud-connected prototype Escape plug-in hybrid at the World Congress on Intelligent Transport Systems in Orlando. With no driver input, the Escape can automatically turn its gas engine on and off depending on whether it’s entering a dense urban zone where only EVs are allowed. Such “exclusion zones” are common in Europe, where Ford debuted their new, highly-connected Evos concept (above) earlier this year.

Most cars equipped with navigation can already let drivers know where burning fossil fuel is verboten, but the prototype Escape goes one step further, using historical data to predict whether a driver is going to be traveling though an exclusion zone and adjusting the powertrain accordingly. That way, the driver won’t run out of juice in EV-only mode. Similarly, the car may be able to optimize its hybrid drivetrain for the highway and back road portions of a commute, or keep the battery topped off in anticipation of a stop-and-go slog.

Ford vehicles equipped with Sync are already cloud-connected. But the use of such technology for purposes other than driver convenience is a departure, and foreshadows a world of vehicles that connect with one another in addition to their drivers.

“Those services thus far have been used for infotainment, navigation and real-time traffic purposes to empower the driver,” said Ford Vehicle Controls Architecture and Algorithm Design technical expert Ryan McGee. “This technology has the potential to empower our vehicles to anticipate a driver’s needs for various reasons, such as optimizing a vehicle’s powertrain efficiency.”

Back at Google I/O, Ford gave a rundown of how the technology could work. Each driver would have to opt in to an encrypted usage profile that securely collected data about driver behavior and habits. When the driver got into the car, the vehicle would access that data to predict where the car was about to be driven and optimize the powertrain accordingly. If the car had any questions along the way, it could ask the driver.

“Once the destination is confirmed, the vehicle would have instant access to a variety of real-time information so it can optimize its performance, even against factors that the driver may not be aware of, such as an EV-only zone,” McGee said.

Posted by Janine E. Mooney, Associate Editor

October 20, 2011