The growing enthusiasm around autonomous vehicles is continuing to pick up steam. Tech companies have been at the forefront, and just this week, news surfaced that Uber will launch its first fleet of self-driving vehicles in Pittsburgh this month and also partner with Volvo to develop driverless cars. U.S. car manufacturers have been taking a more cautious approach so far, but that is starting to change. GM has partnered with Lyft and invested heavily to acquire Cruise Automation to position itself for a take-off in autonomy, while Fiat Chrysler is working with Google to develop autonomous minivans. Ford this week said that it will have autonomous cars on the road by 2021. Ford’s announcement is a large step forward for the company and gives greater momentum toward an economy with fleets of driverless and shared vehicles.
Ford’s recent announcement is a large step forward for the company and gives greater momentum toward an economy with fleets of driverless and shared vehicles.
The vehicles manufactured by Ford will be commercially operational with no steering wheels or gas and brake pedals, but they won’t be on sale to consumers in 2021. Instead, Ford’s initial rollout of autonomous vehicles will be used for ride-hailing services. This fits in with the idea of self-driving cars helping push society further toward a shared economy, and Ford’s announcement is the most explicit statement of this vision from a traditional car manufacturer. This week, the company’s CEO Mark Fields said that Ford is “no longer just an auto company, we’re also a mobility company.”
Ford has taken aggressive measures lately to muscle its way into the autonomous space. It has doubled its headcount in Silicon Valley, secured a funding deal—along with China’s search engine Baidu—with Velodyne, which provides LIDAR sensor systems, acquired a computer vision company, invested in a mapping start-up, and inked a deal with a machine vision company. The company is tripling its testing fleet of Fusion hybrids, this year to 30 and next year to 90. The fact that Ford is using hybrids for its autonomous vehicles underscores that this radical transformation in transportation will bring huge fuel savings.
Ford is certainly making big moves to push out its fleet of autonomous cars, but it’s still taking a more careful approach than Tesla, which is rolling out self-driving technology to consumers before it’s fully tested.
“We’ve taken our time to discuss our autonomous vehicle plans,” Fields said in an interview with Slate. “The reason we’ve taken our time is because our philosophy is that we’re not in a race to make announcements. We’re in a race to do what’s right for the business and our customers. We want to think through this in a holistic way, a very deliberate and strategic way.”
In a different approach from Tesla, Ford plans to skip the semi-autonomous phase and move directly from traditional automobiles to full autonomy.
In a different approach from Tesla, Ford plans to skip the semi-autonomous phase—which is under criticism now after a Tesla driver crashed and died while using driver assist features—and move directly from traditional automobiles to full autonomy. “We abandoned the stepping stones of driver assist technologies and decided to take the full leap to fully autonomous,” said Raj Nair, the chief technology officer of Ford, who said that consumers will be able to purchase their own self-driving vehicle a couple of years after the ride-hailing service begins.
While Ford has been behind others such as Google, Tesla and Uber in embracing the new technology, its timeline is certainly an ambitious one, proving that it wants to supply self-driving cars to the public as soon as the technology and the public are ready so it doesn’t lag others.
As Will Oremus said in Slate, “Ford’s goal is to reprise its role in the original automotive revolution: It doesn’t want to be the company that invents driverless cars, but the one that brings them to the masses.”