Ford says self-driving cars on track for 2021

Jim Lynch
The Detroit News

Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering sees a “fully autonomous vehicle” as a ride-service option on public roads by 2021. Private owners will get their hands on them five to 10 years later, Ken Washington believes.

“At Ford, we are working very aggressively to make this a reality by 2021 by bringing many of the technologies we’ve spoken about, like advanced sensors and the ability to think in computer space like we think as humans to identify objects and make complex decisions ... to a level-four ride service ... ,” he told automotive engineers at the annual SAE International World Congress on Tuesday.

A true level-four vehicle is one that takes the driver fully out of the piloting process. The SAE has issued classifications for vehicles based on the level of control. Cars at level zero are completely controlled by human drivers. Those at level five feature “full-time performance by an automated driving system of all aspects of the dynamic driving task under all roadway and environmental conditions.”

Washington pointed out that the “autonomous” vehicles that are being tested in various locations around the country including Southeast Michigan are at the lower end of the self-driving spectrum.

“The vehicles that are on the road today are vehicles that have driver-assist technologies... that are at levels one, maybe two or two-plus,” he said in a presentation at Cobo Center. “That’s different than technologies that will allow you to full replace the driver — that will autonomously take you from one point to another. There are no fully level-four vehicles on the road today.”

Fords executives said in August the company will have a fully driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals for braking and acceleration in 2021. By doing so, they would 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.

When asked Tuesday to assess the trials underway by technology companies such as Google and Uber, Washington demurred. A questioner at the event said: “It seems like they’re coming to market, ready or not.”

Both have pilot programs underway testing vehicles with autonomous technology, and both have reported minor accidents.

“What I can tell you is that our approach at Ford is to develop the level-four technology to the point of maturity before we put it on public roads with the customer,” Washington said. “We test on public roads with our own safety drivers.

“There is still a lot to learn... a lot of development that needs to be done. A lot of policy that needs to be set.”

What some have seen as an adversarial relationship between the tech companies and traditional automakers may be changing somewhat as the realities of bringing cutting-edge features to the public become a reality, Washington said.

“...They’re realizing that it’s harder than it looks,” he said of tech companies’ foray into the car industry, “and that an automaker’s partnership is pretty important to bring it home.”

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