Ford Joins The Autonomous Car Race

  • Ford is joining the self-driving cars race and will start testing autonomous vehicles on California public roads soon.
  • The Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto is now one of the largest automotive research centers in Silicon Valley.
  • The companies that are placing early bets on autonomous driving will lead the automotive sector in the next decade.

Ford Motor (NYSE:F) announced that it is officially enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program to test autonomous vehicles on public roads. Fully autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid sedans will start road testing in California next year. The Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, with more than 100 researchers, engineers and scientists on staff, is now one of the largest automotive research centers in Silicon Valley. The lab opened in January, expanding Ford’s presence in Silicon Valley, which dates back to 2012.

“Our Palo Alto team has grown significantly this year, using research and innovation to explore and develop future mobility solutions," said Ford president and CEO Mark Fields. "We’re attracting top talent from around the world to join our team in Silicon Valley, including employees from local technology companies and universities who want to make people’s lives better by changing the way the world moves."

The Ford Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto supports Ford Smart Mobility, Ford's next generation automotive road-map announced at the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) 2015 in Las Vegas. Ford plans to develop innovations in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience and big data. At CES, the company also announced 25 mobility experiments around the world to test breakthrough transportation ideas to create better customer experiences, more flexible user-ship models, and social collaboration that can reward customers.

“Having a strong presence in Silicon Valley allows us to further accelerate our research on a wide range of technologies, and apply our insights to create real-world mobility solutions," said Ford VP for Research and Advanced Engineering Ken Washington.

One of the projects targeted by the Ford research lab in 2015 addresses sensor fusion. Sensors on autonomous vehicles detect and track objects in the vehicle’s view, fusing information together to provide a 360-degree view of the car’s surroundings - including street signs, other vehicles, and pedestrians. The research lab is also developing a virtual model to study the interaction between autonomous vehicles and pedestrians, replicating real-world situations to better understand and develop responses to some of the unexpected things that can happen on the road.

Other auto makers besides Ford are joining the autonomous car race. Toyota Motor Corp (NYSE:TM) is betting on Artificial Intelligence (AI)-assisted driving. Two automakers are trying to get their self-driving car prototypes approved for use on Nevada’s roads before CES 2016 next month, IEEE Spectrum reports: Daimler is seeking permission to operate autonomous versions of the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E200 and E300, and Hyundai is seeking autonomous vehicle testing licenses for two Tucson fuel cell electric vehicles (EVs) and two Kia Soul EVs.

The main competitors don't come from Detroit though - they come from Silicon Valley. The main competitor is Alphabet Inc-A (NASDAQ:GOOGL). The Internet giant, committed to visionary, world-changing projects, set up its own auto company, Google Auto LLC, and hired John Krafcik, a 25-year car industry veteran who previously led Hyundai’s business in the US, to head its self-driving car project. Apple Apple (NASDAQ:AAPL) has its own self-driving car project, long held under wraps but now confirmed beyond doubt.

Alphabet and Apple aren't car makers, but Tesla (NASDAQ:TSLA), a visionary Silicon Valley company with a successful line of luxury all-electric cars, is well positioned to bridge the two worlds. The company is accelerating the development of its self-driving cars and plans to ship autonomous luxury cars to consumers by the end of the decade.

All the companies mentioned above predict commercial self-driving cars on the roads by the end of the decade, and the impact of autonomous driving is expected to be huge. Besides enhanced driving safety, self-driving cars could radically change cities by reducing the need for owning a car. In fact, fleets of self-driving cars on demand - autonomous Zipcar, or Uber without drivers - could pick up users in minutes at the tap of a phone app. The companies that are placing early bets on autonomous driving are likely to lead the automotive sector in the next decade, and their stock will soar as a result.

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