Cars will first be offered for commercial use, including ride-sharing platforms

Ford has laid the gauntlet as far as autonomous driving technology is concerned after announcing a 2021 hard date on its plan to roll out fully autonomous vehicles without a steering wheel or pedals. It’s a bold move that circumvents the self-assisted driving technology that other firms like Tesla are doing, but the Blue Oval seems confident in its abilities and resources to have these vehicles out in five years for ride-hailing and ride-sharing purposes.

So while it still represents a big leap from self-assisted driving technology, Ford isn’t going for all the marbles in offering consumers a fully autonomous vehicle. That’s still part of the company’s plan in the long run, but over the short term, the objective is to expose its autonomous driving cars to the ride-sharing industry. A big part of that plan is develop vehicles that meet the SAE Level 4 standard of automation, which provide cars with abilities to handle all aspects of driving by itself that’s limited to a specific set of approved areas or regions. That setup works perfectly with ride-sharing companies like Uber, which, from the looks of it, will be one of the automaker’s target markets.

Ken Washington, Ford’s VP of Research and Advanced Engineering, explained the company’s rationale to The Verge, saying that “in a ride service, you could imagine that the defined environment or area might be large enough to take a customer from a city center to an airport or a seaport. Depending on how much of that environment can you capture in your high resolution map, you can define the area that you’re going to service with the vehicles."

In a lot of ways, Ford’s strategy is not unlike what General Motors is doing. The General has also announced plans to develop autonomous driving cars for commercial services. Tech giant Google is in on the same boat as it already has a test car with no steering wheels and pedals. Even Uber, presumably one of Ford’s future clients for its autonomous driving vehicles, is developing its own technology for the same exact purpose.

Only time will tell if Ford can live up to its set timetable but given how the industry itself has evolved into making autonomous driving technology its own top priority, we can all be sure that Blue Oval will have all hands on deck to get its technology up and running by 2021.

Continue after the jump to read the full story.

Why it matters

It’s nice to see Ford make its plans known and just as important, set a concrete timetable on when it plans to roll out these autonomous driving cars. It takes a lot of courage to lay down these plans to the public because of the resulting pressure that’s inevitably going to come with it. Make no mistake, a lot of people will be looking at Ford closely from now on to see if it’s going to be on schedule with these plans.

The good thing is that the company appears to be well-equipped to handle it considering the recent business partnerships and acquisitions it has made that are all related to the development of its autonomous driving technology. From investments in LIDAR sensors manufacturer Velodyne to 3D-mapping company Civil Maps, the company is putting together a team of partners with specific specializations that can help accelerate the development of the tech. In addition, Ford has also acquired SAIPS, a computer vision and machine learning software, partnered with Nirenberg Neurscience, LCC, a “virtual retina” technology company, and has even set expansion plans for its own research and innovation center in Palo Alto, California.

That tells you that Ford is preparing itself for the challenge that lies ahead. It’s not going to be an easy one – there’s also that separate and equally important issue of getting the right legislation to legalize these cars on the road – but if what the company has been doing to beef up its resources is an indication of what’s the come, Ford is dead serious about meeting what amounts to a self-imposed 2021 deadline.

Press Release

Ford today announces its intent to have a high-volume, fully autonomous SAE level 4-capable vehicle in commercial operation in 2021 in a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service.

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To get there, the company is investing in or collaborating with four startups to enhance its autonomous vehicle development, doubling its Silicon Valley team and more than doubling its Palo Alto campus.

“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.”

Autonomous vehicles in 2021 are part of Ford Smart Mobility, the company’s plan to be a leader in autonomous vehicles, as well as in connectivity, mobility, the customer experience, and data and analytics.

Driving autonomous vehicle leadership
Building on more than a decade of autonomous vehicle research and development, Ford’s first fully autonomous vehicle will be a Society of Automotive Engineers-rated level 4-capable vehicle without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. It is being specifically designed for commercial mobility services, such as ride sharing and ride hailing, and will be available in high volumes.

“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.”

This year, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to be the largest test fleet of any automaker – bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans on the roads in California, Arizona and Michigan, with plans to triple it again next year.

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Ford was the first automaker to begin testing its vehicles at Mcity, University of Michigan’s simulated urban environment, the first automaker to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in the snow and the first automaker to test its autonomous research vehicles at night, in complete darkness, as part of LiDAR sensor development.

To deliver an autonomous vehicle in 2021, Ford is announcing four key investments and collaborations that are expanding its strong research in advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, LiDAR, and radar and camera sensors:

Velodyne: Ford has invested in Velodyne, the Silicon Valley-based leader in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors. The aim is to quickly mass-produce a more affordable automotive LiDAR sensor. Ford has a longstanding relationship with Velodyne, and was among the first to use LiDAR for both high-resolution mapping and autonomous driving beginning more than 10 years ago
SAIPS: Ford has acquired the Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company to further strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhance computer vision. SAIPS has developed algorithmic solutions in image and video processing, deep learning, signal processing and classification. This expertise will help Ford autonomous vehicles learn and adapt to the surroundings of their environment
Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC: Ford has an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, 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. This has led to a powerful machine vision platform for performing navigation, object recognition, facial recognition and other functions, with many potential applications. For example, it is already being applied by Dr. Nirenberg to develop a device for restoring sight to patients with degenerative diseases of the retina. Ford’s partnership with Nirenberg Neuroscience will help bring humanlike intelligence to the machine learning modules of its autonomous vehicle virtual driver system
Civil Maps: Ford has invested in Berkeley, California-based Civil Maps to further develop high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. Civil Maps has pioneered an innovative 3D mapping technique that is scalable and more efficient than existing processes. This provides Ford another way to develop high-resolution 3D maps of autonomous vehicle environments

Silicon Valley expansion
Ford also is expanding its Silicon Valley operations, creating a dedicated campus in Palo Alto.

Adding two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space adjacent to the current Research and Innovation Center, the expanded campus grows the company’s local footprint and supports plans to double the size of the Palo Alto team by the end of 2017.

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“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 startups, and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of technologies and services.”

Since the new Ford Research and Innovation Center Palo Alto opened in January 2015, the facility has rapidly grown to be one of the largest automotive manufacturer research centers in the region. Today, it is home to more than 130 researchers, engineers and scientists, who are increasing Ford’s collaboration with the Silicon Valley ecosystem.

Research and Innovation Center Palo Alto’s multi-disciplinary research and innovation facility is the newest of nearly a dozen of Ford’s global research, innovation, IT and engineering centers. The expanded Palo Alto campus opens in mid-2017.

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