Ford to offer fully driverless car in 2021

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co.’s declaration it will have a fully driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals for braking and acceleration in 2021 represents a bold jump — and a different strategy than General Motors and Tesla.

Ford tests an autonomous Fusion recently in Dearborn. The automaker plans to bypass semi-autonomous driver-assist systems in its quest for fully driverless vehicles by 2021.

Company executives said Tuesday they plan to leapfrog semi-autonomous drive-assist systems like GM’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot that require drivers to take control at a moment’s notice. Going straight to a car that doesn’t need a driver, steering wheel or pedals offers bigger benefits to passengers and is more profitable, the automaker said.

The cars would be available only for commercial applications like ride-sharing in major cities at first.

Raj Nair, Ford’s head of global product development and chief technical officer, said full autonomy extends driving opportunities to the disabled and elderly that semi-autonomous systems don’t offer. And it allows ride-sharing services to cut out a large expense: drivers.

“We abandoned the stepping-stone approach of driver-assist technologies and decided we’d take the full leap to deliver a fully autonomous level four-capable vehicle,” Nair said. He says it’s safer to develop a system that can be in control 100 percent of the time. “We believe we’re taking a unique approach in the industry.”

Karl Brauer, senior analyst with Kelley Blue Book, said the industry is facing “a philosophical fork in the road.”

A gradual transition lets automakers learn from their mistakes, he said. But, Brauer added, “Some could argue it’s not worth the resource investment versus targeting [fully autonomous] from the start.”

Ford isn’t necessarily alone in taking this route, but is offering more concrete details, he said. Google Inc. has said from the start it eventually will offer autonomous pods without steering wheels, but has not given a specific date. Automotive supplier Delphi is working on a fully driverless taxi service in Singapore by the end of the decade.

GM on faster track

Ford’s timetable would still put it behind GM, which announced similar intentions to offer autonomous cars through commercial services within “the next couple years.”

GM and its recently acquired Cruise Automation subsidiary already are testing self-driving Chevrolet Bolt EVs with drivers behind the wheel in San Francisco and Scottsdale. GM Chairman and CEO Mary Barra, however, has said GM believes the steering wheel, brake and accelerator should remain until safety is proven.

Big challenges remain before Ford could offer driverless ride-sharing or ride-hailing. Nair noted that current laws assume there’s a driver in control; they’d have to be rewritten. And Ford has not announced if it will partner with a third-party company like Uber or Lyft, or will develop a service of its own.

Executives on Tuesday announced a number of investments and acquisitions to help Ford achieve its 2021 goal.

President and CEO Mark Fields said the company will expand its Silicon Valley offices from one 30,000-square-foot building to three buildings totaling 180,000 square feet by the end of next year. It will double its staff to 260 by the end of 2017.

Ford also announced a $75 million investment in LiDAR-maker Velodyne.

Light Detection and Ranging sensors are one way autonomous cars “see” the road, by sending out beams of laser light to the road that correspond to a highly detailed map. Velodyne says its sensors are capable of producing 300,000 to 2.2 million data points per second with a range up to 200 meters at centimeter-level accuracy.

“From the very beginning of our autonomous vehicle program, we saw LiDAR as a key enabler due to its sensing capabilities and how it complements radar and cameras,” Nair said. “Ford has a long-standing relationship with Velodyne and our investment is a clear sign of our commitment to making autonomous vehicles available for consumers around the world.”

Acquisitions, investments

The investment in Velodyne is part of the supplier’s latest $150 million round of funding, which includes $75 million from Chinese search-engine company Baidu Inc.

Ford also said Tuesday it has acquired Israel-based software company SAIPS, which creates algorithms for computer vision and machine learning. It also now has an exclusive licensing agreement with machine-learning company Nirenberg Neuroscience. Those are only the latest partnerships by Ford: Last month, the automaker said it was investing in 3-D mapping company Civil Maps. Earlier this year, it invested $182 million in software company Pivotal.

Michelle Krebs, senior analyst with, said Ford’s announcements are “intended to let the world — especially Wall Street — know that it is moving forward in future mobility.”

“General Motors has been grabbing all of the headlines of late, and Ford can’t be happy about that, especially as some Wall Street analysts have wondered if Ford is falling behind in future mobility,” she said.

Wall Street shrugged at Tuesday’s news: Ford stock closed down 9 cents to $12.34 a share, a drop of 0.7 percent.

Ford has been developing autonomous car systems for about a decade, and is testing driverless Fusions in Michigan, California and Arizona. It claims its fleet of 30 test vehicles is the largest in the industry.

As part of those tests, Ford earlier this year became the first automaker to test autonomous vehicle sensors in the snow and ice at MCity, a test center in Ann Arbor.

(313) 222-2401

Staff Writer Melissa Burden contributed.