The Ford Motor Company is making a major step into autonomous vehicles, but it’s moving carefully into this automotive technology.
The company announced on August 16 that it will begin high-volume production of fully autonomous vehicles in 2021 and will market them for ride sharing. Ford also announced that it has locked up agreements with four startups that have developed technology critical for the success of autonomous cars.
In a video announcement about the company’s plans, Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said these will not be standard car designs with autonomous technology added on.
“There will be no steering wheel, no gas pedal and no brake pedals. A driver is not going to be required,” Field said in his video presentation.
Fields predicted that Ford’s autonomous cars would have as significant an impact on society since the company developed the moving assembly line 100 years ago. “When we step back and we take a look at how we can make the most difference in people’s lives over the next 100 years, we see the autonomous car changing the way the world moves.”
Ford isn’t alone in getting an autonomous car ready for real-world use. In January, General Motors announced a plan with car-sharing service Lyft to produce autonomous cars, although a specific target date wasn’t announced. In addition, Uber is reportedly in talks with Mercedes-Benz to begin tests with autonomous version of it S-Class cars.
For its part, Mercedes Benz has already tested autonomous operations with such a vehicle when it drove an S-Class on the same route originally taken by Bertha Benz, wife of Carl Benz, on history’s first automotive road trip. Of course, there were important differences, such as paved roads, in the more recent drive.
But Ford is planning something that’s much more innovative than a single trip over a known course. By using a car sharing service such as Lyft or Uber, Ford is planning a series of trips chosen by riders in a large area.
While there will be restrictions and limitations, what this means is that a customer can specify a pickup point in the city where the autonomous car is operating and pick a destination. The job of the car is to pick up the customer and deliver them to the destination.
The advantage to using a ride sharing service such as Uber or Lyft is that Ford will have a significant amount of control over where the car can go and the conditions under which it can operate.
Because the customer is required to provide their pickup point and their destination when ordering their ride, Ford can make sure they send a car that can operate in the required area. It also means that Uber or Lyft can send a car with a human driver if the customer needs to travel outside of the autonomous car’s safe operating area.
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This is a good move by Ford. The last thing the company needs is a headline similar to what Tesla experienced when one of its drivers collided with a tractor-trailer and was killed. The fact that the driver was apparently acting irresponsibly at the time is lost on most people.
So what will riders in Ford’s new autonomous car find when it starts running its first laps in autonomous service? I’m speculating here, because clearly Ford has nothing to show me. But if you look at other types of autonomous transportation, you should have an idea.
The vehicle with no driver controls may well resemble widely used autonomous devices such as airport terminal shuttles, in which you enter a compartment with lots of windows. The device will already know where you’re going, but it will have to confirm that it picked up the right passenger. Perhaps a smartphone app will take care of that.
The vehicle will probably communicate with the passengers verbally and on a screen, but otherwise it should be pretty boring—sort of like riding in a very advanced elevator. Beyond that, it’s hard to say, although I suspect that some “Jetsons” vision out of the 1950s of a relaxing ride with card games and cocktails is probably stretching the picture a little.
Like Ford, the GM plans with Lyft are apparently similar, allowing the autonomous testing to happen in a defined area with known conditions.
At this point, nobody is saying where the first public autonomous rides will happen, but it’ll probably be in a city with mild weather to eliminating snow and ice as a difficult variable and deep familiarity with technology.
Normally I’d suggest San Francisco or Austin, but both cities have a strong antipathy towards car sharing, so it’s more likely to be somewhere like Palo Alto or San Diego. But of course, those are just guesses.
The first public use of autonomous cars may not even be from the companies making the announcements. Apple is said to be working on such a vehicle as is Google. Volkswagen and BMW have been working on autonomous cars for some time. Any of those could have a surprise announcement before 2021.
What will happen whenever it happens is that cars will become two different types of devices – some that are autonomous and some that must be driven. Autonomous cars are probably the best answer for individual transportation, but there are other reasons for cars, and I remind myself of that every time I go look at the antique Mercedes sports car that rests in my garage, and which one day I may again take for a drive on a twisty mountain road.