Analysis: CEO denies Ford is lagging on self-driving cars – USA TODAY
DETROIT — Ford CEO Mark Fields wanted there to be no doubt that the automaker is absolutely not lagging competitors in the development of self-driving vehicles.
In fact, Ford hinted it could be ahead of some competitors but — at least until now — has chosen to keep much of its progress to itself.
“We are not in a race to make announcements,” Fields said in an interview. “We are in a race to do what’s right for our business.”
The stakes are high for automakers throughout the industry as they jockey for position in the rapidly developing push to become leaders in autonomous vehicles. All three Detroit automakers have announced partnerships this year with Silicon Valley tech companies, while Asian and European automakers have announced partnerships of their own.
Fields was everywhere Tuesday as the automaker announced investments or acquisitions in four companies, said it plans to double its staff of engineers and researchers in Palo Alto, Calif., and — most important — declared it would develop a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021.
There has been a perception in the industry that General Motors, with its acquisition this year of Cruise Automation and partnership with Lyft, is putting the pieces toward a fully autonomous vehicle together faster than Ford.
“Ford’s announcements today regarding its Silicon Valley operations, high-tech investments and autonomous vehicle plans are intended to let the world — especially Wall Street — know that it is moving forward in future mobility,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader. “General Motors has been grabbing all of the headlines of late, and Ford can’t be happy about that.”
Other automakers are also targeting a similar delivery date for a fully autonomous vehicle, with BMW and Volvo announcing last month that they would have a self-driving car by 2021. Some 33 companies are developing autonomous-car technology, from Audi to Volkswagen, according to CB Insights.
Fields compared the advent of self-driving technology as a watershed moment for Ford and the automotive industry.
He — along with many others — said he believes that consumers will eagerly embrace autonomous vehicles and that self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce accidents, congestion and pollution.
“This is not just about convenience. This is also about quality of life,” Fields said. “Think about the elderly person … trapped in their house because there is no way to get around. There are mobility benefits with this.”
Fields also cast Ford’s mission to develop fully autonomous vehicles as directly in line with Henry Ford’s vision of making cars that are affordable and accessible to middle-class people and therefore benefiting society by making travel easier.
“This is a transformational moment in our industry, and it is a transformational moment in our company,” Fields told Ford workers in Palo Alto on Tuesday afternoon. “We are making people’s lives better by changing the way the world moves.”
Ford’s vision for autonomous vehicles is to make an entirely new vehicle without a steering wheel, without a gas pedal and without a brake pedal, echoing an approach that has been used by Google’s Self-Driving Car Project.
“A driver is not going to be required,” Fields said.
Some automakers see self-driving vehicles slowly evolving as more technology is deployed until the car is able to drive itself.
But Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of product development, said the problem is that the automakers don’t know how to manage a system that allows a driver to relax and barely pay attention while simultaneously being ready to take control of the vehicle if necessary.
That challenge leaped to the forefront in May after an owner of a Tesla electric sedan was killed in an accident while using the car’s autopilot system when it ignored a truck cutting across the car’s path.
The Tesla crash — the first fatality involving a semi-autonomous vehicle — highlighted the need for humans to remain vigilant at the wheel regardless of a car’s technological prowess and sent shock waves through the auto industry.
Nair wants to avoid that problem.
Ford’s 2021 vehicle will take a “full leap,” into full autonomy, Nair said. “It’s not about level three automation — that would still require a driver.”
Because of the initial cost, Nair said the vehicle will be aimed first at ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft that will be able to lower their operational costs by providing taxi services without a driver. Still, over time, the vehicle will be aimed at individual customers.