Ford Says It Will Have Self-Driving Cars Within Five Years

Ask five auto executives to predict when we can expect to see self-driving cars make their commercial debut, and you’ll likely hear five different answers. Even though it’s an exciting technology that has captivated car manufacturers across the world, the industry seemed to agree that there is still a fair amount of work to do before vehicles can mimic the instincts and split-second decision-making of humans.

However, that’s not stopping Ford CEO Mark Fields from making a brave promise: fully autonomous fleet vehicles on the road as part of a ride-sharing or ride-hailing service by 2021. Yesterday in Palo Alto, CA, Fields and Raj Nair, the company’s chief technical officer, announced Ford’s plan to mass-produce fully autonomous vehicles within five years.

In an accompanying blog post touting Ford’s “milestone moment,” Fields said that the company has decided that taking incremental steps toward autonomy—conventional industry wisdom—is the wrong way to go.

“So, we abandoned a stepping-stone approach and created a dedicated ‘top down’ engineering program to deliver fully autonomous vehicles and the new mobility solutions and business opportunities that a fully autonomous vehicle could deliver,” he wrote. “It’s now clear that the next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile. In fact, we see autonomous vehicles as having as big an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did a hundred years ago.” Shots fired!

Field went on to outline the steps Ford is taking to accelerate the development of driverless capabilities: the company has invested an undisclosed amount in Velodyne, which he described as “the Silicon Valley-based leader in LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) sensors”; it will acquire SAIPS, an Israeli machine learning and computer vision startup; it will partner with Nirenberg Neuroscience, founded by the researcher who “cracked the neural code that the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain,” to help the company’s autonomous vehicles to better see what’s around them; and it has invested in Berkeley, CA startup Civil Maps to further refine 3D mapping capabilities.

In the blog post, Fields also highlighted Ford’s earlier investment in cloud computing infrastructure startup Pivotal and its collaborative work with MIT, the University of Michigan, and Aachen University in Germany. Ford is reportedly especially bullish on LiDAR’s potential to overcome some of autonomous technology’s current limitations.

Although Ford hasn’t elaborated on which ride-sharing service it plans to partner with, some speculate it will be Uber, since GM is an investor in Lyft and Uber will start doing its own autonomous vehicle testing in Pittsburgh, PA, later this year using hybrid Ford Fusions. Given the fact that Ford has been experimenting with in-house projects like a dynamic shuttle platform, it’s also possible the company will build its own service.

So how are other manufacturers in the traditionally tight-lipped industry responding to Ford’s bold plan? We’ll let you know when we find out. So far, Ford’s fellow auto manufacturers have been quiet.

Sarah Schmid Stevenson is the editor of Xconomy Detroit/Ann Arbor. You can reach her at 313-570-9823 or sschmid@xconomy.com. Follow @XconomyDET_AA

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