- Ford plans to have fully autonomous vehicles in commercial operation by 2021.
- The company, which is doubling the size of its Silicon Valley operations, announced four key investments for self-driving cars.
- Initially, Ford's autonomous cars are expected to be used by ride-sharing operators like Uber.
"The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago," said Ford president and CEO Mark Fields. "We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people - not just those who can afford luxury vehicles."
In December Amigobulls reported that Ford was joining the self-driving cars race and, having officially enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Tester Program, was getting ready to test autonomous vehicles on California public roads.
Amigobulls also covered the plans of Ford and Alphabet Inc (NASDAQ:GOOGL), the holding parent company of Google, to create a joint venture to build self-driving vehicles with Google’s technology, with a business model centered on automated ride sharing. In April the two companies, along with the ride-sharing service Uber and two other companies, said that they were forming a coalition to push for federal action to help speed up the entry of self-driving cars into the market, Reuters reported.
Now, Ford is expanding its Silicon Valley operations, creating a dedicated campus in Palo Alto. The company will add two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space adjacent to the current Research and Innovation Center, and plans to double the size of the Palo Alto team by the end of 2017. "Today, we are actively working with more than 40 startups, and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of technologies and services," said Ford VP Ken Washington, Research and Advanced Engineering, about the company's growing presence in Silicon Valley.
"Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years," said Raj Nair, Ford's executive VP, Global Product Development, and CTO. "We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world."
Ford’s first fully autonomous vehicle, available in high volumes, will be a Level 4 (high automation) vehicle, according to the classification of the Society of Automotive Engineers, operating without a steering wheel, gas or brake pedal, for use in commercial mobility services such as ride sharing and ride hailing within defined areas.
"Today is a milestone moment in Ford's history," wrote Fields in an article titled "Ford’s Road to Full Autonomy." According to the CEO, Ford's intent - to have fully autonomous vehicles in commercial operation for a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service beginning in 2021 - is very significant. "Ford will be mass producing vehicles capable of driving fully autonomously within five years," claims Fields. "No steering wheel. No gas pedals. No brake pedals. A driver will not be required."
According to Ford's CEO, it's now clear that the next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, which will have as big an impact on society as Ford's moving assembly line did a hundred years ago. That changed the world, and now Fields sees the autonomous car changing the way the world moves once again - by addressing key safety, social, and environmental challenges - and improving people's lives during the next hundred years. "The world is changing, and it’s changing quickly," said Fields. "We’re not sitting on the sidelines. Ford will be actively driving that change."
Ford announced four key investments and collaborations intended to help deliver an autonomous vehicle in 2021. The company has invested in Velodyne to quickly mass-produce a more affordable automotive LiDAR sensor, and Civil Maps to further develop high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. Ford has established an exclusive licensing agreement with machine vision company Nirenberg Neuroscience, for a machine vision platform able to perform navigation, object recognition, facial recognition and other functions, having many potential applications for autonomous vehicles. Finally, the company has acquired the Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company SAIPS, to further strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhance computer vision, enabling Ford's autonomous vehicles to learn and adapt to their surroundings.
Ford’s driverless car won’t be made available for sales to individual customers until later in the decade, Fields said in an interview, as reported by The Wall Street Journal. Initially, Ford's autonomous cars are expected to be confined to city zones designed for autonomous vehicles and used by commercial fleet operators to cut the costs and regulatory hassles of employing human drivers.
In related news, ride-hailing leader Uber announced that it is launching a pilot project with autonomous cars in downtown Pittsburgh and partnering with Swedish automaker Volvo on a $300-million joint project to develop self-driving vehicles. Uber has also acquired Otto, a technology startup that makes self-driving trucks.
Though the self-driving car sector is becoming crowded, and ride sharing is becoming popular as a first business model for autonomous cars, it's important to note that Ford has decades of excellence in car making and selling, and a fully deployed marketing and distribution structure. Therefore, it seems likely that the company will be able to capture a share of the autonomous car market, and sell large fleets of self-driving cars to the likes of Uber. Ford is moving and making important investments to achieve leadership, and its stock is likely to soar in the long term as a result.