Ford fleet to help carmaker monetize self-driving cars

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. is using Miami to demonstrate ways to generate revenue from self-driving cars. But Wall Street and industry analysts want to see the vehicle the company would use to do it.

The Dearborn-based automaker said Tuesday it launched in Miami-Dade County a fleet of fully self-driving test vehicles. Others look like they’re robotic but are piloted by humans — that’s because Ford wants to study how users will interact with self-driving delivery vehicles.

The combined fleet numbers fewer than a dozen now, but is expected to grow as Ford first tests driverless delivery services and then expands to driverless taxis. The aim is to experiment with how to collect the most revenue and profit off an autonomous fleet of hybrid vehicles Ford plans to launch commercially in 2021.

Tuesday’s announcement didn’t generate much enthusiasm among investors: Ford stock closed down 2.6 percent at $10.61 per share on a day Dow was down 1.2 percent.

The stakes are high. Ford currently ranks among General Motors Co., Alphabet Inc.’s Waymo, Volkswagen Group and Daimler AG as leaders in the race to put self-driving vehicles on the road, according to Colorado-based technology analysis company Navigant Research.

But the Blue Oval lost ground recently to GM and Waymo, which have gained favor with investors by providing road maps for the immediate future.

Industry analysts say Ford shares could continue to languish because the company is openly figuring out what kind of vehicle it will build for its fleet while others like GM and Alphabet Waymo have already committed to their designs. Retrofitted Fusion Hybrids are the platform for the autonomous vehicles in the Miami testing.

“You can’t even call this a race because there’s so much work to be done,” said Karl Brauer, executive publisher of Autotrader and Kelley Blue Book. “Ford’s in the game, but nothing from (Tuesday) made me think they’re leading.”

One of the only things that would move the needle for Ford would be to roll out “a very advanced and capable” self-driving vehicle, Brauer said, that’s ready for mass-production.

While Ford has worked on autonomous technology for years, and has showcased the development of that technology on test-mule Fusion Hybrids, the company has said little about the status of the mass-production autonomous vehicle it will need by 2021.

Brauer isn’t putting Ford at the back of the pack. Nor is Sam Abuelsamid, a Michigan-based automotive analyst with Navigant Research, in part because automotive companies are traditionally secretive with product in development.

“They’re working out how are they going to make money from automated vehicles,” Abuelsamid said. “Ford’s messaging has been around the part that they think is more important.”

While Silicon Valley companies like Tesla Inc. play the game a bit differently — often missing deadlines on very public product promises — traditional automakers like Ford keep things more secretive.

The first market-ready driverless car is poised to come from GM. It plans to deploy a driverless taxi service using a Cruise AV — a self-driving version of the fully electric Bolt – in a yet-to-be-named city next year. Waymo is testing self-driving vehicles — modified Chrysler Pacifica minivans — on public roads in Phoenix.

Until now, Ford’s self-driving research and testing has been done in pieces. The Miami operation is the first time Ford will test its autonomous technology and the business plan for that technology while working with multiple partners in the same place. Domino’s Pizza and Postmates, which has a network of couriers that deliver almost anything locally on-demand, are partnering with Ford in Miami.

To test its delivery model, a handful of Fusions, vans and SUVs have been made to look like autonomous vehicles, but do not run in autonomous mode. It is using the pseudo self-driving delivery Fusion Hybrid that began delivering pizzas in Ann Arbor last year.

“This is not an experiment just for experiment’s sake,” Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, told The Detroit News in an interview. “We’re actually going to take this and turn it into a business. This is turning into reality for the team.”

Miami will test the business plan’s “scalability,” a term used to define a business’s ability to function well as it is expanded. The region’s mix of small businesses and its mostly fair weather appealed to the automaker.

Marakby, CEO Jim Hackett and Global Markets President Jim Farley have repeatedly stressed the importance of Ford having a business model that can be deployed “at scale” in 2021. Miami will be the first of two cities announced this year in which Ford works to learn what partners need out of an autonomous fleet.

Argo AI, Ford’s partner developing the virtual-driver system for its autonomous vehicles, is mapping the streets of Miami and Miami Beach so test vehicles know how to get around.

Some of the streets already have been mapped, and the Fusion Hybrids are running in full autonomous mode in those parts of the city with backup-drivers on board.

Ford has tested that technology in other cities, including Dearborn and Pittsburgh, where Argo is based.

Farley and Marakby have said Ford will build a commercial-grade hybrid vehicle “designed for purpose” come 2021. The company wants those vehicles operating with little downtime, transporting a mix of goods and people throughout the day to maximize profit.

Analyst Abuelsamid said Ford’s experimentation on the business plan could be a key move for the company later on. Most automotive companies will have some form of self-driving technology available to them, but they all won’t know how best to deploy it to generate revenue.

“Nobody knows with absolute certainty how (companies) are going to turn this into a profitable business,” he said. “Ford has the beginnings of what they think are the right solutions. I think they’re directionally correct. I think they’re on the right track.”