Ford plans to debut fully driverless vehicle by 2021

Ford says it will have a fully driverless car on the road by 2021.
Ford says it will have a fully driverless car on the road by 2021. AP Photo/Chris O'Meara

DETROIT – Ford Motor Co. intends to have a fully driverless vehicle — no steering wheel, no pedals — on the road within five years. The car will initially be used for commercial ride-hailing or ride-sharing services; sales to consumers will come later.

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Ford CEO Mark Fields announced the new goal Tuesday at the company’s Silicon Valley campus in Palo Alto, California.

“This is a transformational moment in our industry and it is a transformational moment for our company,” Fields said.

Ford’s approach to the autonomous car breaks from many other companies, like Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors, which plan to gradually add self-driving capability to traditional cars. Instead, Ford is taking the same approach as Google, which supports moving directly to self-driving cars once the technology is perfected.

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“We abandoned the stepping-stone approach of driver-assist technologies and decided we were going to take the full leap,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technical officer,

Nair says Ford will continue developing driver-assist systems, like automatic emergency braking or lane departure warning. But making personal cars more autonomous is dangerous, he said, because Ford hasn’t figured out how to make sure drivers stay engaged and ready to take back the wheel when the car encounters an obstacle. Removing the driver solves that problem.

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Ford’s vehicle will be specifically designed for commercial mobility services, like taxi companies, and will be available in high volumes. Ford says personal ownership of self-driving cars will come later.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based company also says it plans to double the staff at its Palo Alto research centre by the end of next year to nearly 300 people. It will buy two more buildings next to its current building in order to expand its campus, Fields said.

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Ford said it will make several investments and partnerships to speed its development of autonomous vehicles.

Ford and Chinese search engine company Baidu will each invest $75 million in Velodyne, a company that makes laser sensors that help guide self-driving cars. Velodyne, based in Morgan Hill, California, says it will use the $150 million investment to expand design and production and reduce the cost of its sensors. Laser sensors — called Lidar, which stands for light, detection and ranging — can also be used in conventional vehicles as part of driver assist systems such as automatic emergency braking.

Ford also said it has acquired Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company SAIPS for its expertise in artificial intelligence and computer vision. It has also formed a partnership with Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC, a machine vision company that has developed devices for restoring sight to patients with degenerative eye diseases.

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