At an event in Silicon Valley, Ford CEO Mark Fields announced that in five years’ time, the company intends to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road. The car will be used specifically for ride-hailing and ride-sharing, Fields said, and will not have either a steering wheel or pedals.
Ford has been working on autonomous vehicles for the better part of ten years, but has in the past avoided pinning down a time when it would actually have self-driving cars on the road. Today’s announcement finally commits Ford to a timeline, and Fields outlined investments the company has made to make it happen.
Fields said that the company will be expanding its campus in Palo Alto, California—where its software and hardware engineers work (the home office is back at headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan)—as well as investing in a range of other companies working on technologies that can help make self driving cars a reality. That includes a $150 million investment with Baidu in Velodyne, the LIDAR (laser-radar) camera system of choice for many self-driving car projects. Ford will also be buying SAIPS, an Israeli machine learning company, and licensing technology from Nirenberg Neuroscience, a computer vision company; these two technologies will help Ford’s cars perceive the world around them. ”This is a transformational moment in industry,” Fields said, “and a transformational moment for our company.”
The first car that Ford will produce—possibly derived from the Ford Fusion sedan it’s currently using to test its self-driving technology—will be solely for Uber-like trips. “If you want to get around the city without the hassle of driving, Ford’s autonomous vehicles will be there for you,” Fields said. This aligns with Fields’ previously outlined plan for Ford, where the future of the company is just as much about selling cars, as it is selling car-related services. “The nature of ownership is changing,” Fields said.
Details were thin on what the car would look like, or how much it would cost to use—Ford has five years to nail down these subtleties—but the company did say that its car will not feature any sort of “handover” function, where a human would be able to take back over driving from the car. This is because Ford doesn’t believe there’s an adequately safe solution on the market; recent issues like the crash that occurred while a car was in Tesla’s Autopilot function, would seem to have influenced this decision. Speaking about safety, Fields said: ”Trust is a really big deal here, and we’ve been earning people’s trust for over 100 years.”
Ford added that it will require the hard work of its employees—and the support regulators—to turn its plans into realities over the next five years. Ford will also have to contend with the myriad other companies who have committed to releasing self-driving cars over roughly the same time period, such as Volvo, Tesla and Google.
Still no word on when we’ll see a self-driving Mustang.