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Ford autonomous vehicle
Ford plans to have fully autonomous vehicles available for mobility services by 2021. (Credit: Ford)

Ford Motor Co. says it’s aiming to mass-produce fully autonomous vehicles for ride-sharing and ride-hailing services within five years – and it’s investing tens of millions of dollars in ventures that could help the company hit that goal.

“We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did more than 100 years ago,” Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said today at the company’s Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, Calif. “And that’s why today we’re announcing Ford’s intent to have a high-volume, SAE Level 4, fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation in 2021.”

To meet that timetable, Fields said the Silicon Valley center’s staff would be doubled to more than 300 – and that’s not all:

  • Ford is also investing $75 million in Velodyne, one of the world’s foremost makers of laser-based lidar sensing systems. (The Chinese search engine company Baidu, which is working on its own fleet of autonomous cars, is putting another $75 million into Velodyne.)
  • Ford is acquiring SAIPS, an Israeli company specializing in computer vision and machine learning.
  • It’s investing in Civil Maps, a company that creates high-resolution 3-D maps for autonomous vehicles.
  • It’s partnering with Nirenberg Neuroscience, which is working on prosthetic eyes for humans as well as synthetic vision systems for robots.

Today’s moves keep Ford in the top rank of companies targeting the anticipated market for autonomous vehicles, alongside Tesla, GMVolvo and Google.

Tesla’s electric cars already offer a level of autonomy in the form of an Autopilot driver-assist system. Autopilot has been the focus of controversy in recent months, due in large part to a fatal accident in May. That led Tesla to remind customers that they shouldn’t trust Autopilot to do hands-free driving.

Autopilot is seen as an example of SAE Level 2 autonomy – that is, partial automation with the expectation that the driver will retain full control. Other driver-assist features – for example, to parallel-park a car automatically, or follow other cars at a specified distance – are becoming widely available across the industry.

What Fields is talking about is Level 4 autonomy, in which the car can handle all aspects of driving as long as it sticks to well-defined conditions. That level is tailor-made for ride-sharing, ride-hailing and pre-programmed package delivery, said Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of product development and chief technical officer.

Nair stressed that Ford would focus on Level 4 as well as Level 5, the category for all autonomy all the time, rather than trying to build a car where the driver might have to regain control of an autonomous vehicle. The cars that Ford plans to make won’t even have a steering wheel, a brake pedal or an acceleration pedal.

Only Level 4 autonomy “holds the promise of extending mobility to millions of people, young and old, that aren’t currently served by an affordable form and accessible form of transportation,” he said.

Ford has been testing a fleet of autonomous Fusion Hybrid vehicles since 2013, at facilities in Michigan, California and Arizona. Nair said the fleet was on track to triple from 10 to 30 cars by the end of this year, and would triple again next year.

Ford hasn’t yet identified the companies it’ll partner with to operate the vehicles. Nair said fully autonomous cars probably would stay beyond the reach of individual owners until several years after they enter service, “because the economics just simply don’t make sense.”

Fields noted that mobility trends were pointing away from individual car ownership and toward shared services. “That means cars are going to be used more efficiently, they’re going to be decreasing pollution, saving people time looking for parking spaces in cities, and helping to reduce traffic congestion,” he said.

“Today, we’re no longer just an auto company,” Fields said. “We’re also a mobility company.”

This report has been updated to reflect the fact that Ford has been testing autonomous Fusion Hybrid vehicles since 2013.

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