Ford’s self-driving cars likely around 2020, says CEO Fields – USA TODAY
LAS VEGAS – Ford’s Tuesday morning CES press conference was notable in part for the absence of news: not a word mentioned about a rumored partnership with Google’s autonomous car program.
Ford CEO Mark Fields hinted at the mystery, noting that “there’s been a lot of talk out there (in autonomous car circles) about whether we’re partnering with people. The answer is yes.” But then he mentioned a half-dozen existing partners including State Farm Insurance and the University of Michigan.
Mainly, the event was a chance for the Detroit automaker to list the various areas in which it continues to invest in future mobility trends, the corporate version of accelerating slightly while staying in the same highway lane.
Those include plans to roll out more models with Ford’s Sync 3 connected infotainment system (43 million cars by 2020); growing the landscape of in-car apps (via an open-source platform called Smart Device Link); teaming with Amazon on Internet of Things connectivity (leveraging Amazon’s cloud-based assistant Alexa); and a decision to triple the number of autonomous test vehicles (30 will soon hit roads and tracks in California, Arizona and Michigan).
One notable demo found Ford chief technical officer Raj Nair showing off a new Velodyne Lidar (laser radar) unit whose size has shrunk over the decades to that of a large hockey puck. Lidar devices help autonomous cars scan the road ahead and plot a safe course, and are typically large and mounted on the roof. The new Velodyne models will be fitted into the side view mirrors of Ford’s Fusion Hybrid self-driving cars.
“When we do come out with an autonomous car (for consumers), it won’t be something just for luxury buyers,” said Fields, taking a jab at up-market electric automaker Tesla, whose Model S and Model X sedans cost upward of $100,000. “Ours will be for a broad group.”
In an interview with USA TODAY following the press conference, Fields described how as CEO his mission is to both sell cars and predict the future.
“We’re trying to have the best divining rod we can to detect these societal trends and figure out what that means for our business,” he said. “We have shareholders we report to today, but the winning car companies will be the ones that accurately envision what the future will be about.”
Fields acknowledges that many Millennials seem to prefer access to cars over ownership, but adds that “when they get married and have kids, that all changes. So you can’t say, ‘Millennials are here, our business is changed forever.”
While Ford is pushing hard into developing its own autonomous vehicle, Fields says that reality is still about four years out and will hinge less on technological challenges and more on societal issues.
“The tech is developing very fast, but dealing with the regulatory, legal and insurance issues that come with autonomous cars will take a concerted effort from everyone in this space,” said Fields. “But we have to figure this out, because it’s coming.”
Follow USA TODAY tech reporter at CES all week @marcodellacava.
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