Ford CEO Mark Fields on self-driving cars, buying things from Amazon while we drive, and Mustangs

Fields thinks humans will continue to drive these.
Fields thinks humans will continue to drive these.
Image: AP Photo/Carlos Osorio
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One of the three halls at the Las Vegas Convention Center at this year’s Consumer Electronics Show was dedicated almost entirely to car technology. In years past, there might have been a few automakers or third-party companies showing off in-car technologies—new ways to connect your phone to your car, new ways to listen to music, or charge your phone—but this year, it felt as if cars themselves had become covetable gadgets. Even though the Detroit Auto Show—arguably the car world’s CES—was just a week later, nearly every car manufacturer had a presence at CES, and at the heart of the North Hall of the convention center was Ford.

The 113-year-old car company showed off some traditional cars at CES, like the wonderfully unaffordable new Ford GT supercar. But much of its massive booth was dedicated to what could well prove to be the future of car industry: autonomous vehicles. At CES, Ford announced it’s tripling the number of self-driving vehicles it’ll be testing in California, Arizona, and Michigan, and the vehicles will use new technology from Velodyne, an acoustics company that makes LiDAR (laser radar) sensors that many self-driving vehicles and robots use to see the world.

Ford CEO Mark Fields has said that he believes self-driving cars are right around the corner. Quartz sat down with Fields to discuss what the future of cars looks like when they’re driving themselves, and what Ford’s place in the next century of mobility looks like. (This transcript has been edited for length and clarity.)

Quartz: When will we see the first actual self-driving cars we can own, and will they be made by Ford?

Fields: What I’ve said about autonomous vehicles is that probably in the next four years, somebody in the industry will have an autonomous vehicle. We have not given an indication of a market introduction date. Because when we do introduce it, we want to make sure it’s accessible to everyone and not just folks that can afford luxury cars.

Why are self-driving cars dominating the conversations about the future of cars now?

First off, I think looking at the societal trends, it’s really clear that in major urban areas that there will be more restrictions on cars. You’re seeing it today in terms of congestion charges in various cities. Certain cities are starting to put legislation down that will outlaw the use of private vehicles in certain sections of downtown areas. So it’s very clear that there will be less vehicles in major urban areas, and that’s why we think obviously that autonomous vehicles will play an important role in allowing people to be mobile.

One of the self-driving Ford Fusions being tested in the US.
One of the self-driving Ford Fusions being tested in the US.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

How does the self-driving car go from being a concept to commonplace in the next 10-20 years?

Thinking out five, 10, 15 years, you’ll see more of a propagation of autonomous vehicles, so what you’ll have is a more efficient use of the car park, so to speak. But at the same time, you’ll probably see vehicle-miles-travelled go up because the accessibility that people will have to mobility and autonomous vehicles will be a lot greater. You’ll probably see also very much an integration between autonomous vehicles and what we call vehicle-to-infrastructure communication—particularly as cities work to ease congestion in and about the cities. Finally, I think you’ll also see in that timeframe much more use of electrified vehicles, whether they’re full-battery electric vehicles, or plug-in hybrids, or conventional hybrids, clearly the importance of reducing CO2 emissions and improving fuel economy will continue to be very important in that timeframe.

How will Ford differentiate itself from its self-driving competitors?

We have obviously a lot experience in the car business, over 113 years, and our differentiation is going to be clearly the whole user experience, and how you experience the whole vehicle going forward, whether they’re directed-driving vehicles, or self-driving vehicles. But also at the same time, I think we want to differentiate ourselves with the holistic approach we’re taking to mobility, which is not just around autonomous vehicles.

Velodyne’s sensing technology, on a Ford Fusion.
Image: Quartz/Mike Murphy

We’re looking at every element in terms how people live their lives in terms of wanting to stay connected 24/7 inside their vehicles, whether they’re self-driven vehicles or driven by people, being able to use analytics to anticipate people’s needs, as opposed to people trying to tell us what they want. In terms of enabling them when they want to take a ridesharing service, or whether they want to drive themselves. Or just overall, using technology to really make their experience with Ford—whether they own a vehicle or whether they’re transported in a Ford vehicle—easier.

What does a self-driving Mustang look like?

You know that’s probably a tough one. There’s one view that says in the distant future that the world is just going to have a bunch of roaming autonomous vehicles going around and picking up people. I think it’s going to be a combination of autonomous vehicles, it’s going to be a combination of vehicles that are driven by people because they like the driving experience, or because the functionality is important—whether they have a family etc. I think you’re going to continue to see Mustangs—the majority of them being driven by people.

Will there be an increase in driver-assist-style AI in regular cars?

Absolutely. And you’re seeing that on a lot of our vehicles today in terms of the semi-autonomous features that we have. Whether it’s adaptive cruise control or lane-keeping assist, or automatic parking—perpendicular or automatic parking—you’ll be seeing more and more of that, even building upon our leadership position today to help make people’s lives easier as they drive their vehicles.

What is Ford’s biggest challenge with autonomous vehicles moving forward?

Well, obviously the technical challenge is pretty stout. But I think we have a decade worth of experience under our belt on this, so i think that will be overcome over time. Particularly, we’re showing the commitment we’re making on that with the tripling of our autonomous research fleet. I think the other challenge is really around making sure we get a regulatory and a legal framework that the industry and other sectors like the insurance industry can agree upon. As usual, technology always tends to lead those areas and we want to be part of the solution in helping to shape that.

Do you think the future of cars will be determined by traditional car manufacturers or silicon valley?

From our standpoint—from a Ford standpoint—we want to continue to lead in that area. That being said, we also want to make sure that we continue to partner appropriately where it makes sense.

The reports of working with Google on cars—is that the sort of partnership you’re talking about?

We talk with a lot of different companies, we partner with universities, we partner with State Farm insurance, we’re partnering with Amazon and Velodyne for their technology. You have lots of conversations with folks who work with a lot of folks—I’d think you’d appreciate that a number of those conversations are private for competitive reasons.

On Amazon—is there any reason you chose their AI assistant technology over Apple’s Siri or Google?

In the case of Amazon, this is one of the beauties of having a research center in Silicon Valley. Because we’re there, and they have their A126 lab there, we’ve established a relationship over time. They’re a proven innovator and we just struck up a relationship, and this idea came up, and they’ve been a great organization to work with.

So will we buying detergent from our Fords in the future?

It could be—you never know!