Las Vegas — Ford Motor Co. President and CEO Mark Fields successfully dodged reports of a partnership with Google Inc. to build driverless cars as the automaker on Tuesday unveiled the latest in its mobility initiatives.
Fields Tuesday morning announced that Ford is tripling the size of its own driverless car fleet; will partner with Amazon.com to connect home and car; and is exploring the use of drones with its F-150 pickups.
“You’re going to see us change pretty dramatically, becoming an auto and a mobility company,” Fields said.
Ford will add 20 Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles, bringing the company’s self-driving fleet to about 30 Fusions being tested on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan. Last month the automaker announced it would test driverless Fusions on streets in California.
“Using the most advanced technology and expanding our test fleet are clear signs of our commitment to make autonomous vehicles available for millions of people,” Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development, and chief technical officer, said in a statement.
Ford says the 30 Fusions will be the largest autonomous fleet in the automotive industry.
Despite reports last month that Ford would team up with Google to build driverless cars, Fields did not make an announcement, but acknowledged Ford will partner with a number of companies when it makes sense.
Fields reiterated his belief that an automaker will have a fully driverless car on the road by the end of the decade, and he said that when Ford’s first autonomous car is sold, it will be for the masses.
“It will not be just for those folks who can buy luxury vehicles,” Fields said.
Ford said it’s using supplier Velodyne’s newest LiDAR sensors on its cars. The sensors are about the size of a hockey puck, which allows them to be placed on the side mirrors, as opposed to bulkier systems typically that typically sit on the roof.
LiDAR emits short pulses of laser light to precisely scan the surrounding environment millions of times per second and determine the distance to objects, allowing the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3D image of whatever is around it.
Ford is also expected to announce that it’s working with Amazon to connect homes with cars, allowing customers to do things such as turning on the living room lights while driving, or starting the car from their kitchen.
Using Amazon’s Echo voice recognition software, Ford wants to develop voice commands to control lights, thermostats, security systems and other features of their homes from their car, and to stop, start, lock, unlock and check their vehicle’s fuel range from their homes.
“Consumers increasingly want to stay connected to their homes while on the move,” Don Butler, Ford executive director, Connected Vehicle and Services, said in a statement. “Linking smart devices like Amazon Echo and Wink to vehicles via SYNC would fulfill that desire, and allow consumers to connect with their vehicles even when they aren’t behind the wheel.”
Finally, Ford and drone-maker DJI are expected to announce a “developer challenge” in which users will be asked to think of the best applications for drones and vehicles.
Ford envisions technology that could allow United Nations first responders to earthquakes or tsunamis to quickly deploy drones able to survey and map hardest-hit areas — all from the cab of an F-150.
Using the Ford Sync 3 touch screen, the driver could identify a target area and launch a drone by accessing an app projected through Ford Sync AppLink. The drone would be launched from the F-150’s cab and follow a flight path over the zone, capturing video and creating a map of survivors with close-up pictures of each.
“Working with DJI and the United Nations, there is an opportunity to make a big difference with vehicles and drones working together for a common good,” Ken Washington, Ford vice president, Research and Advanced Engineering, said.
Applicants to the surveying system challenge can visit developer.dji.com/challenge2016. The winner receives $100,000.
Ford on Tuesday will also begin accepting applications to its “Techstars Mobility, Driven by Detroit” program, a mentorship-driven accelerator program launched last year to focus on next-generation mobility and transportation solutions.
Up to 12 startups will receive $120,000 in funding and three months of mentoring and training to develop ideas and solutions aligned with the company’s “Smart Mobility” plan. Applicants can apply now at www.techstars.com/apply. Deadline is March 22.