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Ford: The Democratization of Autonomous Driving

Ford is aiming for an autonomous future. (Photo: Ford)

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When people talk about autonomous driving, it’s not usually Ford that springs to mind. But now the American OEM is poised to overtake: by 2021, they want to have tens of thousands of driverless vehicles on the road.

Drive or be driven? So far, that hadn’t been a question for Ford. When it came to advanced driver assistance systems (ADAS), the U.S. carmaker’s performance was fair to middling. Even the latest models offer little more than adaptive cruise control and a lane keeping assist. But that is about to change.

Ford CEO Mark Fields is planning a radical transformation – from a car manufacturer to a mobility provider. By 2021, he wants to deploy fully autonomous cars (without steering wheels or pedals) for transport services or car sharing fleets in what would be the first time in a US city. “And we are not talking about a pilot project with a few dozen cars in the middle of nowhere,” Fields emphasizes. “We are talking about tens of thousands of cars in a metropolis the size of New York, Chicago or Los Angeles.”

30 new vehicles per minute – or 125 000 rides

Fields believes that this is a necessary step to take if an OEM wants to survive; considering that 30 new cars are sold in the USA each minute – but at the same time, 125 000 cab or Uber rides are booked. “That is why mobility is at least as large a business field as new vehicle models,” explains Field, who wants a big slice of that cake for Ford. “We can’t just throw an attractive product into the market anymore and judge our performance by the quantities sold. We also have to look at how the product is used and how we can benefit from this usage.”

Thousands of cab rides are booked every minute. (Photo: Fotolia / vlad_g)

With this strategy, Fields is taking a radically different path than premium OEMs like BMW, Audi or Mercedes: it is the path that Uber and Google have chosen as well. The premium manufacturers consider the autopilot a fee-based extra. In return for a high surcharge they promise to give those willing to pay some spare time (while the car drives autonomously). Fields, on the other hand, wants to reach as many people as possible – and change the world a little bit while doing so.

Autonomous driving could halve mobility costs

What matters to him is not selling cars anymore, but providing mobility for the lowest price possible. “Just like Henry Ford did with introducing the assembly line, we are again making mobility affordable for the broader public,” says the CEO. He offers a simple calculation: “Owning a vehicle costs up to 1.50 dollars per mile (around 0.90 Euros per kilometer). Car sharing is twice and taking a cab even four times as expensive. With the autonomous car, we are pushing the price down to around one dollar per mile (around 0.60 Euros per kilometer) – while increasing safety and comfort and reducing traffic jams.” All of a sudden, people would be able to use a car that they so far couldn’t afford to – or didn’t want to because they felt it was more a burden than anything else while living in the city.

Ford CEO Mark Fields plans to turn Ford into a mobility provider. (Photo: Ford)

So it seems Ford are positioning themselves as the industry do-gooders. But their strategy also follows a simple cost calculation: fully autonomous vehicles might be more expensive to purchase than conventional cars – but for mobility providers, such as taxi companies, they could pay off more quickly, Field argues. How? Well, whoever deploys such vehicles for transport services also has to take labor costs into account: “And if you don’t need a driver anymore, the calculation will pay off pretty fast.” However, until private customers are able to afford an autonomous vehicle, it will take at least five years longer.

Specific architecture for driverless cars

When it comes to technology, Ford are again taking a different avenue to their competitors who keep improving their existing models with assistance systems, gradually increasing the level of autonomy. “For those cars we need our own platform, own sensors and own software that have not much in common with conventional vehicles anymore,” says research head Ken Washington.

Ford run a research center in the Silicon Valley. (Photo: Ford)

Developing this new autonomous architecture as well as creating and updating the respective digital maps and programming 100 prototypes until the end of next year (currently there are 10) is only one of four challenges that Ford needs to solve by 2021. According to Fields and Washington, the other obstacles are the costs for sensors, software and computing, creating a legal framework and customer acceptance. For Washington, the last two go hand in hand. “If the public is convinced by something and demands it, politicians won’t be able to ignore it,” Washington stresses. Ford have already started the ball rolling when it comes to the necessary PR work. “Our designers will use their new freedoms and create a car that everybody would like to get into,” says Fields.

More employees and development budget

Ken Washington knows that a lot of work must be done before this large-volume production can start. But he is convinced that he can overcome these challenges within the next three years. After all, his testing fleet will increase tenfold within a year and the staff in his Silicon Valley research center will double. He is also encouraged by a fleet of retrofitted Fusion sedans that are already commuting between different Ford sites in Detroit as a test run. On this basis, Ford plan to establish a fully autonomous shuttle service for their employees by next year, whereby a computer will take over steering, braking and accelerating tasks. But at such an early stage, Washington admits that he does not want to rely exclusively on the autopilot. To be on the safe side, an engineer will be present in the vehicle for the foreseeable future.

Can Ford succeed with their ambitious 2021 agenda? Share your thoughts in the comment section!

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