On 16 August, Ford held a press conference to announce its plan to launch a fully autonomous vehicle in 2021. Even though the response at the live event was strangely unenthusiastic, there were a number of points that were important for the future of autonomous vehicles and the automotive industry in general.
The headline news was that in 2021, Ford intends to launch a Level 4 (SAE Standard J3016) fully autonomous vehicle. To clarify the nature of the car, CEO Mark Fields made it clear that it would not have a steering wheel or control pedals, even though last year Ford said it had no plans to sell wheeled pods in which people are merely along for the ride.
The company also said that it would be several years after 2021 before individuals can buy it; it is aimed at car and ridesharing fleet operators. Ford Smart Mobility LLC may become one of the first customers. Ford and GM are already piloting their own systems on shuttles for their employees, as noted in a blog earlier this year by my colleague Sam Abuelsamid.
Skipping a Step
Ford also said it would continue to develop and improve its driver assistance features up to Level 2 (partial automation), but it would not be introducing any vehicles with Level 3 (conditional automation) because company researchers had concluded that there was no safe way to ensure that drivers would remain alert enough to resume control in an emergency after an extended period of automated driving. Ford vehicles in the future will either have a range of assistance features or be driverless.
This is a change from the gradual automation theme that has prevailed in the industry until now, although Ford has been saying for the past year that it doesn’t believe that Level 3 is viable. Solving the Level 3 handover issue has been an important topic at recent technical conferences, and Ford has now confirmed its position. While most other OEMs have been working on Level 3, many are now coming around to the idea that the Level 2 to 4 jump is inevitable.
Although convenience and mobility were the focus of the announcement, Ford also acknowledged that safety is a big part of the reason to promote more driver assistance and eventually fully autonomous vehicles. Providing mobility to those without access today, such as the elderly and infirm, was another of the high-level goals. There are also potential opportunities in local package delivery.
Also included in the press announcement were investments in a series of companies providing key pieces of the future autonomous vehicle:
- Velodyne: A supplier of lidar sensors
- SAIPS: An Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company
- Nirenberg Neuroscience: A machine vision platform for performing navigation and object recognition
- Civil Maps: A provider of high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities
However, Ford made it clear that it was not interested in simply installing autonomous driving software developed elsewhere. It sees its future as a system integrator and will keep most of the development and integration roles in-house.
When asked about powertrain for this new vehicle, Ford said that it would leverage one of its global platforms, but would not confirm whether it would be all-electric or not. The company noted that it has experience with hybrid drive as well as electric and the powertrain has not yet been chosen.
Ford intends to expand from being primarily a vehicle manufacturer to become a mobility company and has drafted a timeline for this shift. This aligns with Navigant Research’s Transportation Outlook white paper that was published in early 2016, and the timing validates the forecasts in our Autonomous Vehicle reports. It will be interesting to see how other OEMs react.
Tags: Advanced Transportation Technologies, Autonomous Vehicles, Level 4 Autonomy, ridesharing, Transportation Efficiencies
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