Ford just made a big promise about autonomous, or self-driving, cars—with a twist. On Tuesday at the company’s research facility in Palo Alto, California, CEO Mark Fields announced that the company will mass-produce autonomous vehicles by 2021. Up to now, companies have held out the vague goal of enabling autonomous driving by 2020 or so, but Ford is particularly aggressive in committing to a specific year in the near future.
Here’s the twist: These cars won’t be for you or anyone else to buy. Instead, these first autonomous cars from Ford will be made specifically for ride-sharing and ride-hailing. Fields emphasized, too, that these cars will be fully autonomous, without a steering wheel or other traditional controls.
Ford is already a leader among the major carmakers in autonomous research, but still, today’s announcement is a radical stance once reserved only for Google’s self-driving cars. Fields explained why Ford is moving away from the slow, incremental path being taken by other major automakers: “What we found with Level 3 autonomy [where the car drives but the driver remains in control] is that we don’t yet know how to manage handover back to the driver.” Fields didn’t refer specifically to the June tragedy where a Tesla driver died while letting his car drive, in semi-autonomous AutoPilot, straight into a tractor trailer, but the incident has cast a pall over all recent discussions of autonomous driving.
FIelds noted some business reasons for removing the driver, too. The first autonomous cars, tricked out with arrays of radars, cameras, and other sensors, would be too expensive for individual drivers anyway. “The economics don’t make sense,” Fields said. Also, Ford’s very interested in building new businesses in ride-sharing and ride-hailing, and the ability to make its own vehicles is a big advantage.
Fields envisioned a future where the young, disabled, and elderly could have better access to transportation through the use of autonomous vehicles. He added that such vehicles could also be useful for routine transportation work such as commuter shuttles and package delivery.
The company is fueling this effort with a ton of money and people, including major investments in LiDAR maker Velodyne (also announced Tuesday) and other companies with technologies key to autonomous driving. CTO Raj Nair said Ford would triple its fleet of autonomous research vehicles this year (it's already the biggest fleet in the industry, Nair said), and then triple it again next year.