While pretty much every automaker out there today is working hard to bring semi and fully-autonomous vehicles to market in the not-too-distant future, only a handful of automakers — Tesla, Nissan, General Motors, Audi and Mercedes-Benz — are getting the lion’s share of publicity surrounding self-driving cars.
But earlier today, Ford made a move that could see it share some of that limelight by announcing its intent to have a fully-autonomous, high-volume Level-4 autonomous vehicle in production and on the roads of the U.S. by 2021. At the same time, it cemented its commitment to autonomous vehicle research and development by announcing a doubling of its autonomous vehicle development team in Silicon Valley as well as making major investments in four startups working on core autonomous vehicle technology: Velodyne, SAIPS, Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC, and Civil Maps.
As you might expect, all four firms Ford has invested in focus on a specific key technology. Velodyne for example, focuses on LIDAR sensor technology, while SAIPS is an Israeli firm recently acquired by Ford that focuses on enhanced artificial intelligence computer vision. Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC meanwhile focuses on facial and object recognition technology, and Civil Maps is a specialist in 3D ultra-high resolution mapping technology.
Ford, which notes in its press release that it was the first automaker to begin testing its vehicles at the specially-built MCity test facility at the University of Michigan as well as be the first automaker to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in snow, says that while it will have a fully autonomous car ready for market by 2021 will not be be introducing that technology in a car customers can buy. Instead, it will build a fully-autonomous Level-4 car for use in ride-sharing fleets.
Not sure what Level-4 Autonomy is? It’s the fifth level of six autonomous vehicle classifications currently defined by the U.S. Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) in which a car can carry out all dynamic driving tasks completely autonomously and safely. Level-0 (no autonomy) is the equivalent of a fully manual operation car, while a Level-5 vehicle can operate completely independently in the same set of conditions as any normal human driver, including inclement weather or challenging road conditions. Level-4 and Level-5 autonomous vehicles operate at such a high degree of autonomy that they rarely require intervention from a human and as such, do not need to include standard automotive controls such as steering wheel or pedals.
For comparison, Tesla’s current Autopilot system on the Model S and Model X electric cars is currently operating at Level-2 automation.
Talking earlier at a press conference announcing Ford’s new goals for autonomy, Mark Fields, president and CEO of Ford, was adamant that Ford’s autonomous vehicle push would be as revolutionary as the vehicle production line of Henry Ford was a century ago.
“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having a significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” he said. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people — not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”
Field’s mention of high-end cars — obviously a thinly-veiled attack on both Tesla and Mercedes-Benz and their respective semi-autonomous vehicle technologies — emphasises that while some automakers are looking to introduce autonomous vehicle technology in their high-end models, Ford is taking a significantly different approach. In fact, by focusing on autonomous vehicles for use in fleet environments (where it’s easier to make the business case for buying an expensive, cutting edge vehicle than it is to justify the same financial investment for personal use) Ford is conveniently side-stepping the elephant in the room: that all first-generation fully-autonomous vehicles will be expensive.
But there’s also another key benefit to focusing first on car-sharing platforms: customer exposure. If Ford were to focus on bringing its autonomous vehicle technology to market via one of its premium brands (like Lincoln, for example), only customers who could afford the technology would be exposed to it, along with potential customers who happened to have friends or colleagues with an autonomous car.
By focusing on an autonomous car sharing platform, anyone who can afford the service — essentially a driverless cab ride — can benefit from the technology.
Finally, Ford’s decision to focus on autonomous car sharing service vehicles first also ensures it can prepare itself for a future where car ownership is no-longer expected as a norm but rather an optional extra. With GM already laying claim to some of the market with its own autonomous vehicle project and close integration with Lyft, Ford’s move into the sphere makes sound business sense.
Naturally, Ford is confident in its capabilities and says it is already hard at working making sure its goals are met. But will it achieve its lofty goal, or will legislative and regulatory issues stand in its way? Or will it be beaten to market by a rival automaker’s technology?
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