DETROIT (AP) — Ford Motor Co. intends to have a fully driverless
vehicle — no steering wheel, no pedals — on the road within five
years. The car will initially be used for commercial ride-hailing
or ride-sharing services, with sales to consumers coming later.
“This is a transformational moment in our industry and it is a
transformational moment for our company,” said CEO Mark Fields,
as he announced the plan Tuesday at Ford’s Silicon Valley campus
in Palo Alto, California.
Ford’s approach to the autonomous car breaks from many other
companies, like Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors, which plan to
gradually add self-driving capability to traditional cars. Just
last month, BMW AG, Intel Corp. and the automotive camera maker
Mobileye announced a plan to put an autonomous vehicle with a
steering wheel on the road by 2021.
Instead, Ford is taking the same approach as Alphabet Inc.’s
Google, which supports moving directly to self-driving cars once
the technology is perfected.
“We abandoned the stepping-stone approach of driver-assist
technologies and decided we were going to take the full leap,”
said Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technical officer.
Nair says Ford will continue developing systems that assist the
driver, like automatic emergency braking or lane departure
warning. But he said semi-autonomous systems that can operate the
car but then cede control back to the driver when an obstacle is
encountered are actually dangerous in Ford’s view. Engineers
couldn’t figure out how to make sure drivers stay engaged and
ready to take over. So, Ford decided to remove the driver
“We learned that to achieve full autonomy, we have to take a
completely different path,” Nair said.
Jeremy Carlson, a senior analyst with IHS Automotive, says he
doesn’t know of another automaker that is taking Ford’s approach.
But there are challenges either way, he said. Riders may have a
hard time trusting fully autonomous cars, for example, but
semi-autonomous cars can be dangerous because drivers may not
understand what the vehicles can and cannot do.
“I don’t think there’s going to be any one right answer,” he
But Dillon Blake, senior director of business development for
Runzheimer, a transportation consulting firm, says Ford’s
approach could go wrong very quickly.
“When you do it in steps, you get to make tweaks along the way.
When you go all or bust, it’s like going ‘all in’ in Vegas,”
Ford’s vehicle will be specifically designed for commercial
mobility services, like taxi companies, and will be available in
high volumes. Ford says personal ownership of self-driving cars
will come later.
Ford didn’t say whether it would work with a ride-sharing partner
or try to establish services on its own. Rival General Motors Co.
has a partnership with the ride-hailing company Lyft and has also
bought a self-driving software company called Cruise Automation.
Dearborn, Michigan-based Ford also said it plans to double the
staff at its Palo Alto research center by the end of next year to
nearly 300 people. It will buy two more buildings next to its
current building in order to expand its campus, Fields said.
Ford will also make several investments and partnerships to speed
its development of autonomous vehicles.
Ford and Chinese search engine company Baidu will each invest $75
million in Velodyne, a company that makes laser sensors that help
guide self-driving cars. Velodyne, based in Morgan Hill,
California, says it will use the $150 million investment to
expand design and production and reduce the cost of its sensors.
Laser sensors — dubbed Lidar, which stands for light, detection
and ranging — can also be used in conventional vehicles as part
of driver assist systems.
Ford said it has acquired Israel-based computer vision and
machine learning company SAIPS for its expertise in artificial
intelligence and computer vision. It also invested in Berkeley,
California-based Civil Maps for its three-dimensional mapping
Ford has also formed a partnership with New York-based Nirenberg
Neuroscience LLC, a machine vision company that has developed
devices for restoring sight to patients with degenerative eye
Ford shares fell 9 cents to $12.34 on Tuesday.
AP Technology Writer Michael Liedtke contributed from San