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Ford to offer driverless ride sharing in 2021

Collaboration with four start-ups, doubling size of California team

Published: August 16, 2016, 5:30 PM
Updated: April 29, 2018, 12:50 PM

Ford tests autonomous vehicle in snow

Ford is taking its autonomous vehicle program in a new direction, intending to have a fully autonomous vehicle available for 2021 … for ride sharing.

What does that mean? It would be like using a mobile app on your Smartphone to summon an Uber car, except when the car arrives, there isn’t a driver.

It’s no so far-fetched when you consider the ability of some of today’s concept vehicles to autonomously park themselves (meaning drivers literally get out of their cars at the front door of the restaurant, for example, and then use a mobile app to send the vehicle off to find a parking spot), or getting dressed up to go out and getting the car to bring itself around from the coach-house.

So Ford has announced its intention to have a high-volume (we take that to mean a Fusion, mainly because it’s the car Ford has used to develop its autonomous systems), fully-autonomous SAE level 4 autonomous vehicle in ride-hailing or ride-sharing service by 2021. The company is collaborating with four start-ups to push the program, and doubling the size of its development teams in California.

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

Ford has committed to lead autonomous vehicle development into the next decade, as part of its Ford Smart Mobility initiative, as well as topping connectivity, mobility, the customer experience, and data and analytics.

Its development has been ongoing for more than a decade, and claims that its first fully-autonomous vehicle will be pressed into commercial service, and will not be fitted with a steering wheel or pedals. It will carry Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) level 4 rating (high-automation, where a driver is no longer required in defined usage). Level 5 is the stage at which a driver is no longer required at all.

“Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years,” said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development, and chief technical officer. “We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world.”

Ford tests autonomous vehicle in snow

Leading up to 2021, Ford will increase its autonomous vehicle test fleet in designated numbers, planning to triple its current fleet (10 vehicles) that has been undergoing testing in California, Arizona and Michigan. It plants to again triple it next year to bring it up close to 100 (making it easily the largest fleet of any manufacturer).

Among its testing achievements, Ford has tested its vehicles in snow and in complete darkness, aided by its LiDAR (LIght Detection And Ranging) sensor development. Along with LiDAR, other advanced technologies include 3D mapping, radar and camera sensors, and advanced algorithms.

The company has partnered with Velodyne (the Silicon Valley-based leader in LiDAR sensors), SAIP (the Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company to further strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhance computer vision), Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC (a machine vision company founded by neuroscientist Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, who cracked the neural code the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain), and Civil Maps (the Berkeley, California-based pioneer of a 3D mapping technique that is scalable and more efficient than existing processes).

LiDAR 3D mapping techology - LiDAR 3D mapping technology

Ford is also expanding its dedicated campus in Palo Alto, adding two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space, and doubling the size of its research and innovation team.

“Our presence in Silicon Valley has been integral to accelerating our learning and deliverables driving Ford Smart Mobility,” said Ken Washington, Ford vice president, Research and Advanced Engineering. “Our goal was to become a member of the community. Today, we are actively working with more than 40 start-ups, and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of technologies and services.”