Ford's vision for a robotic car is not far away

By Brian Fung

To complete its push for self-driving cars, Ford plans to double its number of employees. Photo / Getty Images
To complete its push for self-driving cars, Ford plans to double its number of employees. Photo / Getty Images

Today, the software economy makes hailing a ride incredibly easy. Tap a button, and a driver will arrive at your door to whisk you away. But in just a few years, the car may show up without any driver inside at all.

Ford said Tuesday that it wants to be first to roll out a completely automated transportation service. By 2021, it expects to win the race by beginning to make and sell thousands of robotic cars that can ferry passengers to and fro, without any human input other than the destination.

Like the prototypes being developed by Google, Ford's self-driving vehicles won't even have brake pedals or a steering wheel, executives say.

"We're a high-volume manufacturer," Raj Nair, Ford's chief technology officer, said in an interview. "This is not a couple hundred development units in limited use. When we talk about high volume, it's thousands of units - and sometimes more."

No matter which company makes it there first, the technology will mark the beginning of a new era in car travel, potentially reshaping the face of America's cities, according to policy experts.

Computers with lightning-fast reflexes will be able to respond to danger more quickly and effectively than humans, proponents say. Smarter vehicles will minimize accidents, traffic congestion and wasted time and money - and they may even be able to help cities repurpose land now wasted on parking lots.

To complete its push for self-driving cars, Ford plans to double the number of employees in its Silicon Valley workforce from 130 to more than 250. It will also work with or invest in a handful of startups that are developing self-driving technology, ranging from laser sensing to machine learning to digital mapping.

The company intends to make automated transportation a cornerstone of the business as it shifts from solely selling vehicles to selling and operating them as well.

Ford chief executive Mark Fields has described the new business model as one that leans more heavily on "vehicle miles traveled," an industry term that refers to the amount of ground covered by a car. Just as many taxi cabs charge on a per-mile basis, so, too, does Ford expect to turn its cars into a steady stream of recurring revenue.

Ford chief executive Mark Fields. Photo / Getty Images
Ford chief executive Mark Fields. Photo / Getty Images

Company executives said they are in active discussions with "everybody" in the ridehailing industry about its forthcoming autonomous car, and hinted at Ford's ambitions to become the standard hardware platform for such services everywhere.

"It's not just a traditional opportunity of building an automated vehicle, but generating revenue on vehicle miles traveled, it opens up the opportunity for us to offer transportation as a service," said Nair.

Much will depend on whether Ford and its partners can encourage enough Americans to use the robotic cars to make them economical. Although the company expects the cost of ridehailing to come down as human drivers are gradually phased out by computers, it may only be feasible in the densest parts of the country - and then only where the weather supports near-constant automated driving.

It's not just a traditional opportunity of building an automated vehicle, but generating revenue on vehicle miles traveled, it opens up the opportunity for us to offer transportation as a service.

"What we've been doing over the last two years - and what we will continue to do - is research and development on advanced algorithms to increase the utilization," said Ken Washington, Ford's vice president of research and advanced engineering.

When the weather turns foul, Ford may consider turning to human drivers to keep the cars running, executives said. (The company has been conducting tests to improve its robotic vehicles' performance in snow and ice.)

Ford's cars will still require some supporting infrastructure, likely in the form of maintenance depots where cars can return for refueling or, if they turn out to be electric vehicles, for recharging.

But most consumers will likely never see these facilities. They'll be too busy reading, watching TV or looking out the car window to think about it.

- Washington Post

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