Ford’s Self-Driving Cars
Ford’s ambitions are changing: according to its CEO, the company’s goal is “not only to be an auto company, but an auto and mobility company.” Ford’s bold ambition is to mass-produce a fully autonomous self-driving car without a steering wheel, and it is still on course to be a reality by 2021, most likely as part of an Uber-like ridesharing service that doesn’t require a human driver. This new direction for Ford signals an era where the company sees itself, particularly in cities, as providing an ad-hoc service rather than focusing solely on selling cars to the general public.
How Ford’s Self-Driving Cars Will Work
Ford’s driverless cars, which will be newly designed models (you won’t be able to get a driverless Ford Mustang, sorry), are planned to have Level 4 autonomy, meaning that they will not have a steering wheel, gas or brake pedals. This refers to the standards put in place by the US-based Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE), and the levels represent the sophistication of self-driving technology. At Level 4 (“high automation”) the car can operate, unmonitored, in a particular situation – for Ford, this would be a city area. Level 5 is full autonomy in any driving condition, and Level 2 is a level of automation that means that the driver has to monitor the car at all times. The company has said that it is not interested in offering Level 3 driving.
While this sounds impressive, it should be noted that Ford’s futuristic cars will still have some significant limitations, at least in the beginning. Ford cars will only be able to operate in certain areas within cities, meaning that the company will set defined physical parameters that have previously been mapped by the company’s driverless test fleet. Also, Ford will only provide the service in an area where its sensors can “operate at their optimum performance.” That is, it will not operate in certain weather conditions or in geographical locations that might interfere with how sensors collect data.
The dream, of course, is to open an app, request a car, and get where you want to go in a car with no driver. Ford’s self-driving fleet is a good reminder that we are still some ways off from autonomous vehicles taking us wherever we want, because the technology is just not there yet. Ford hasn’t said what city it will launch in first, nor has it determined how it plans to enable people to request a car, but it’s in talks with several companies about potential partnerships.
And while Ford will launch its first commercial self-driving car in a ridesharing fleet, it’s ambitions go beyond just offering the technology in a service setting. In the long term, Ford plans to sell autonomous vehicles to consumers; but for now, it’s likely more important for Ford to stay focused on the ridesharing and ride-hailing business.
What Other Companies Are Doing
Ford’s strategy is similar to that of other automakers in terms of self-driving cars. For example, Volvo plans to roll out a self-driving system called Intellisafe Autopilot in 2020, and it will also only allow its cars to enter self-driving mode on certain routes. BMW announced plans in July to roll out a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles by 2021 in partnership with Intel, and has received permission from the California DMV to test its driverless cars. General Motors recently bought an autonomous car startup, Cruise Automation, and plans to partner with Lyft to develop driverless taxis.
However, Google still leads the way in self-driving technology: its cars have been out on public roads clocking up miles for several years now. It too is developing a car without a steering wheel, but regulations so far prevent that car from venturing beyond private land. Recently, the company announced a partnership with Chrysler that will increase its fleet with the addition of 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans. Google is unlikely to produce its own cars for the mass market.
Uber’s Pilot Program in Pittsburgh
In September, Uber introduced its self-driving cars in a pilot program in Pittsburgh. It’s the biggest public introduction to driverless tech yet, and Uber’s pilot offers people a real glimpse of these cars on city roads instead of just highways. However, an American public opinion survey from the University of Michigan showed that just under 16% of respondents would want to ride in a self-driving vehicle. Obviously, the technology has a ways to go before it reaches mass public acceptance, but with companies racing to get driverless fleets on the roads by 2020, it can’t be long before the public has little choice.