Ford CEO Mark Fields wanted there to be no doubt Tuesday that the Dearborn automaker is absolutely not behind competitors in the development of self-driving vehicles.
In fact, Ford hinted it could be ahead of some competitors but — at least until now — has chosen to keep much of its progress to itself.
“We are not in a race to make announcements,” Fields told the Free Press. “We are in a race to do what’s right for our business.”
The stakes are high for automakers throughout the industry as they jockey for position in the rapidly developing push to become leaders in autonomous vehicles. All three Detroit automakers have announced partnerships this year with Silicon Valley tech companies, while Asian and European automakers have announced partnerships of their own.
Fields was everywhere Tuesday as the automaker announced investments or acquisitions in four companies, said it plans to double its staff of engineers and researchers in Palo Alto, Calif., and — most important — declared it would develop a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021.
The CEO sought to hammer home several key messages about Ford, the industry and the potential of self-driving cars as he began his day on CNBC’s “Squawk Box,” conducted multiple interviews with media outlets, including the Free Press, held a news conference in Palo Alto and finished the day on a conference call with Wall Street analysts.
“Our view is, autonomous vehicles could have just as significant of an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” Fields said.
There has been a perception in the industry that General Motors, with its acquisition this year of Cruise Automation and partnership with Lyft, is putting the pieces toward a fully autonomous vehicle together faster than Ford.
“Ford’s announcements today regarding its Silicon Valley operations, high-tech investments and autonomous vehicle plans are intended to let the world — especially Wall Street — know that it is moving forward in future mobility,” said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for Autotrader. “General Motors has been grabbing all of the headlines of late, and Ford can’t be happy about that.”
Despite the carefully choreographed slate of events, Wall Street seemed unfazed as Ford’s stock fell 9 cents for the day, or 0.7%, to $ 12.34 per share as most major markets also fell about a half-percent.
Other automakers are also targeting a similar delivery date for a fully autonomous vehicle, with BMW and Volvo announcing last month that they would have a self-driving car by 2021. Some 33 companies are developing autonomous-car technology, from Audi to Volkswagen, according to CB Insights.
‘Transformational for the industry’
Fields compared the advent of self-driving technology as a watershed moment for Ford and the automotive industry.
He — along with many others — said he believes that consumers will eagerly embrace autonomous vehicles and that self-driving cars have the potential to dramatically reduce accidents, congestion and pollution.
“This is not just about convenience. This is also about quality of life,” Fields said. “Think about the elderly person … trapped in their house because there is no way to get around — there are mobility benefits with this.”
Fields also cast Ford’s mission to develop fully autonomous vehicles as directly in line with Henry Ford’s vision of making cars that are affordable and accessible to middle-class people and therefore benefiting society by making travel easier.
“This is a transformational moment in our industry, and it is a transformational moment in our company,” Fields told Ford workers in Palo Alto on Tuesday afternoon. “We are making people’s lives better by changing the way the world moves.”
No steering wheel
Ford’s vision for autonomous vehicles is to make an entirely new vehicle without a steering wheel, without a gas pedal and without a brake pedal, echoing an approach that has been used by Google’s Self-Driving Car Project.
“A driver is not going to be required,” Fields said.
Some automakers see self-driving vehicles slowly evolving as more technology is deployed until the car is able to drive itself.
But Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of product development, said the problem is that the automakers don’t know how to manage a system that allows a driver to relax and barely pay attention while simultaneously being ready to take control of the vehicle if necessary.
That challenge leaped to the forefront in May after an owner of a Tesla electric sedan was killed in an accident while using the car’s autopilot system when it ignored a truck cutting across the car’s path.
The Tesla crash — the first fatality involving a semi-autonomous vehicle — highlighted the need for humans to remain vigilant at the wheel regardless of a car’s technological prowess and sent shock waves through the auto industry.
Nair wants to avoid that problem.
Ford’s 2021 vehicle will take a “full leap,” into full autonomy, Nair said. “It’s not about level three automation — that would still require a driver.”
Because of the initial cost, Nair said the vehicle will be aimed first at ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft that will be able to lower their operational costs by providing taxi services without a driver. Still, over time, the vehicle will be aimed at individual customers.
Ford’s path to self-driving car
To make its fully autonomous vehicle a reality, Ford is rapidly expanding the size of its workforce in Silicon Valley and is forging partnerships with a number of technology companies.
Ford first opened its Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto in January 2015. It occupies one 30,000-square-foot building.
The automaker’s goal was to use Palo Alto not just as a place to develop new technology but as a way to integrate itself into the Silicon Valley tech culture. Today, Ford is working with more than 40 tech companies in Silicon Valley.
“We’ve made a lot of progress, much more than we expected,” Fields said.
Now, it plans to add two new 75,000-square-foot buildings and lab space that will open next year. The automaker also plans to expand its workforce of researchers, scientists and engineers from 130 researchers, engineers and scientists to more than 260.
To help it develop the technology necessary to develop fully autonomous cars, Ford said Tuesday it has:
- Invested $ 75 million in Velodyne, a developer and manufacturer of LIDAR, or laser radar. Lidar systems have sensors that can detect objects and help the car navigate.
- Acquired SAIPS, an Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company. SAIPS has developed imaging and video-processing software that learns and improves over time.
- Entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine vision company with software that mimics human intelligence.
- Invested in Civil Maps, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that has developed high-resolution, three-dimensional mapping capabilities.
Fields acknowledged that launching a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 remains a monumental task but expressed confidence that Ford will be able to reach its goal.
“Raj and his team have been working on this for 10 years,” Fields said. “That engineering know-how that Raj and his team have collected (combined with its Silicon Valley partners) gives us a lot of confidence that in 2021, our intent is to have this fully autonomous vehicle.”
Contact Brent Snavely: 313-222-6512 or firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter @BrentSnavely. USA TODAY contributed to this report.
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