With more and more automakers announcing broader and ever increasing moves into autonomous vehicles, it seemed like one of the biggest was getting left behind. But with a series of announcements, Ford is showing that when it comes to self-driving cars, they're here to play.
The biggest announcement came from Ford CEO Mark Fields, who stated yesterday that Ford plans to produce fully autonomous cars to be used by ride-sharing services (like Uber or Zipcar) by 2021. Fields said that "we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago", and praised the impact the cars could have on social and environmental challenges.
Ford is tripling their fleet of autonomous test cars, with 30 Fusions spread around North America. Fields indicated that could triple again by next year. Part of their five-year drive includes investments and collaboration with LiDAR sensor manufacturer Velodyne, computer vision company Nirenberg Neuroscience, 3D mapping company Civil Maps, and they have purchased SAIPS, a company making artificial intelligence software that allows the vehicles to adapt to their surroundings. The final part of their announcement is that Ford is doubling their workforce at their autonomous development facility in Silicon Valley and is expanding their campus there.
Ford's plan is for these vehicles to be completely autonomous, with no controls for the driver. This is known as Level 4 automation, with Level 3 requiring a driver to intervene in certain situations. Ford's chief technology officer, Raj Nair, said that the reason for this is "what we found in research is, there’s a challenge with Level 3, and we don’t yet know how to manage a handoff back to a driver, have him situationally aware enough to re-engage in a safe manner." Without a need for the driver, the car is ideal for ride-hailing services or car sharing. It can go to pick you up empty, take you where you need to go, and then return to either the next person or to home base, all without human intervention. It also changes the way the interior can be designed without having to deal with the hardpoints and ergonomics of a wheel and pedals.