Ford to offer fully driverless car in 2021 – The Detroit News
Ford Motor Co. hopes to offer a high-volume, fully driverless car — without a steering wheel or pedals — for commercial applications like ride-sharing in 2021.
The Dearborn automaker on Tuesday revealed for the first time specific plans for a future that includes full autonomy. It’s still unclear if Ford will offer driverless ride-sharing through third-party companies like Uber or Lyft or will develop its own, in-house service.
“We view autonomous vehicles as having just as much opportunity and significance of changing society as the Ford moving assembly did over 100 years ago,” Ford President and CEO Mark Fields said.
To help reach that goal, Ford made a number of investment announcements. Fields said the company will expand its Silicon Valley offices from one 30,000-square-foot building to three buildings totaling 180,000 square feet by the end of next year. It will also double its staff from 130 to 260 by the end of 2017.
Ford also announced a $75 million investment in LiDAR-maker Velodyne; the acquisition of Israel-based software company SAIPS; and an exclusive licensing agreement with machine-learning company Nirenberg Neruoscience. Last month, it also announced it was investing in 3D mapping company Civil Maps.
Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with Autotrader.com, said, “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. General Motors has been grabbing all of the headlines of late, and Ford can’t be happy about that, especially as some Wall Street analysts have wondered if Ford is falling behind in future mobility.”
Ford’s crosstown rival has already announced similar plans to offer autonomous cars through commercial services. GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra has said those services could be available within five years.
GM and its recently acquired Cruise Automation subsidiary already is testing self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs with drivers behind the wheel in San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona.
Barra, however, has said that GM believes the steering wheel, brake and accelerator should remain in autonomous vehicles while self-driving technology and safety is proven.
“We believe through an evolution we’re able to put the technology into the vehicles,” Barra told reporters ahead of GM’s annual shareholders meeting in Detroit. “And it is very important that we demonstrate safety. We think that having that capability when the steering wheel and the pedals are still in the vehicle is a very good way to demonstrate and prove the safety.”
Ford’s commitment to a specific time frame is significant; until now, the automaker has admittedly taken its time on such announcements.
“We’ve been working at this a long time, thinking about it very holistically, strategically and deliberately, and our approach is that we’re not in a race to make announcements, we’re in a race to do what’s right for our customers and our business,” Fields said.
Ford has been developing autonomous car systems for about a decade, and is currently testing driverless Fusions in Michigan, California and Arizona. It claims its fleet of 30 test vehicles is the largest in the automotive industry.
As part of those tests, Ford earlier this year became the first automaker to test autonomous vehicle sensors in the snow and ice at MCity, a test center in Ann Arbor.
Ford’s $75 million investment in LiDAR-maker Velodyne, is part of the supplier’s latest $150 million round of funding. Light Detection and Ranging sensors are one way autonomous cars “see” the road, by sending out millions of beams of laser light to the road ahead that reflects a highly-detailed map of what’s in front of the car.
“From the very beginning of our autonomous vehicle program, we saw LiDAR as a key enabler due to its sensing capabilities and how it complements radar and cameras,” said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Product Development and Chief Technical Officer. “Ford has a long-standing relationship with Velodyne and our investment is a clear sign of our commitment to making autonomous vehicles available for consumers around the world.”
The technology once took the form of hulking, whirling disks on top of driverless test cars, but suppliers have been cutting down on size and cost. Velodyne earlier this year announced its latest iteration, a sensor that resembles a thick hockey puck and can attach discreetly to any part of an autonomous car, such as on its side-view mirrors.
Velodyne says its sensors are capable of producing 300,000 to 2.2 million data points per second with a range up to 200 meters at centimeter-level accuracy.
In addition to Ford, Chinese search company Baidu Inc. also invested $75 million.
“LiDAR continues to prove itself as the critical sensor for safe autonomous vehicle operation,” said David Hall, founder and CEO, Velodyne LiDAR. “This investment will accelerate the cost reduction and scaling of Velodyne’s industry-leading LiDAR sensors, making them widely accessible and enabling mass deployment of fully autonomous vehicles. We are determined to help improve the goal of safety for automotive vehicles as soon as possible, as well as empower the efficiency autonomous systems offer.”
The Velodyne investment is the latest in a number of bets Ford is making on the future of cars. Earlier this year, it invested $182 million in software company Pivotal.
Melissa Burden contributed.