Ford Motor Company helped sell Americans on driving cars, and in the coming years, they are ramping up their efforts to remove the driver from the equation.
The company is already testing a fleet of autonomous cars, with plans to bring more onto the road later this year. It’s all building to a planned product launch in late 2021. Jim Hackett, CEO of Ford Motor Company, told investors in the firm’s April earnings call that its current tests cover “some really challenging areas,” which could give the project a boost over rivals like Tesla and Waymo.
More than 100 years after Henry Ford developed a mass production assembly line for the Model T, the company is continuing in its tradition of applying new technologies to reach broader audiences.
Ford Autonomous Car: What is the History of Its Project?
Ford has regularly expressed interest in making the driver’s job easier and safer (after all, driving in cars remains relatively dangerous compared to public transportation and flying). In 2008, it introduced an Active Park Assist feature that used ultrasonic sensors to take the hassle out of parallel parking.
In April 2012, a Ford representative revealed in an interview that it had already built a car with the necessary sensors to understand its world with high-resolution cameras and scanning lasers. Jim McBride, a Ford Research and Innovation technical expert, told Gigaom at the time that “there is no technology barrier from going where we are now to the autonomous car.” In December 2013, Ford unveiled its automated Fusion hybrid research vehicle at its Detroit headquarters, which used lidar and other sensors to demonstrate how self-driving technology could make drivers’ lives easier and safer.
Ford made headlines in September 2016 when it stated its goal to roll out full autonomous driving with no pedals or steering wheel by 2021. The goal would be to sell 100,000 per year only for commercial purposes. Its efforts got a big boost in February 2017 when it invested $1 billion into autonomy experts Argo A.I., a firm that included ex-Google autonomous car experts in its roster.
Ford Autonomous Car: What is the Release Date?
Ford has been promising “level four” autonomous cars will be available by 2021, the categorization that is typically understood to mean completely human driver-free vehicles constrained only by factors such as geographic location. Hackett noted in April that these geographical limits could be stricter than expected, adding that its scope will be narrow “because the problem is so complex.”
Don’t expect to actually buy these cars for yourself initially, though. While in September 2016 the company said it would eventually sell autonomous cars to consumers in the mid 2020s, it has since moved to temper expectations. Ford then announced in April 2018 plans to stop selling most of its cars in North America, instead focusing on vehicles like crossovers and SUVs as part of a cost-saving plan.
The new focus of its autonomy initiatives will instead be on ride-hailing. Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, explained in November 2018 that the product will be an autonomous car combined with an app and the cloud, so the car can pick up a person when they need it.
Ford Autonomous Car: What is the Price?
Pricing for these rides in the ride-hailing service is still slightly unclear, but Marakby said in November 2018 that the cost per mile for ride-hailing “is going to be lower [than current vehicles] and will be profitable for us.” A 2016 analysis of a similar project from Tesla stated that the current cost of an UberX in San Francisco was $2.50 per mile, while an autonomous car could still earn a reasonable amount of revenue at a lower price.
Ford Autonomous Car: Where Are the Tests Taking Place?
Ford’s testing has been underway in Miami since February 2018 working with local product-delivering companies like Domino’s and Postmates. These efforts are designed to study how businesses will use vehicles and how customers will interact with them.
The firm recently expanded into Washington D.C. in October last year. The tests would help map out the city’s streets, so it can eventually host businesses using its vehicles.
A third city is on the way soon. Marcy Klervorn, chief transformation officer of Ford Motor Company, said during the recent call that its next city has been selected and will be announced later this year, while it’s aiming to deploy 100 test cars total by the end of the year.
“I mean I don’t want to pick on any competitor because it’s not my purpose, but you could put these vehicles in places where the weather never changes,” Hackett said during the firm’s first quarter 2019 earnings call. “There’s not a lot of intense urban kind of challenges, mostly everyone’s retired and the roads don’t change a lot. We’ve opted into some really difficult settings to prove this capability.”
Ford Autonomous Car: Why Is It Making a Self-Driving Vehicle?
Ford is competing in a crowded field, including big names like Tesla and Google-linked Waymo, for a highly lucrative prize. A Goldman Sachs report in May 2017 predicted that ride-hailing would jump from $36 billion in 2016 to $285 billion by 2030, with spending on private cars dropping from 80 percent of total mobility spend to 65 percent. The companies that can successfully transition to this new era could win a big share of the market, which makes Ford’s city-focused tests all the more important.
“We laughed that if autonomy was only destined for the L.A. freeways, you don’t have to deal with dogs and baseballs running across them and no need to recognize that,” Hackett said.
An August 2018 document from the company explained that “we are not in a race to be first to offer self-driving vehicles to the public,” adding that “our focus is on doing it correctly.”
Ford Autonomous Car: Who Is It Competing Against?
As for Ford’s next testing ground, Hackett didn’t name names, but the state of California has become a popular destination for Silicon Valley to test their vehicles. The Department for Motor Vehicles has publicly granted 62 companies a permit to test with a safety driver, including Ford. Cruise Automation, Uber and even Apple has been spotted taking their systems for a spin.
While the leadership may be confident about their efforts, there are signs that other companies are making big progress. Waymo, which is testing a limited taxi service in Phoenix, Arizona, declared in October 2018 that it had already racked up 10 million real-world miles. It is also the only company that’s been granted a California permit to test their cars without any human driver ready to take over.
Tesla, on the other hand, is banking on future software upgrades to gradually ramp up automation on its existing fleet of nearly half a million electric cars. It claims that all vehicles shipping since October 2016 have the necessary cameras and sensors to enable full self-driving, and those cars have been collecting data through the semi-autonomous Autopilot feature. Tesla is estimated to have raked up over a million Autopilot miles, around half of which are on the modern sensor suite. It plans to switch on a “robo-taxi” service as early as next year.
The race to reach the self-driving car could speed up quickly soon.