Ford partners to develop autonomous vehicles in China

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News


A driverless minibus by Baidu Apollo is seen during the Global Future Mobility Conference in Hangzhou in China's eastern Zhejiang province on September 20, 2018. (Photo by STR / AFP) / China OUT        (Photo credit should read STR/AFP/Getty Images)

Ford Motor Co. has partnered with a Chinese company to test self-driving vehicles in the world's largest auto market.

The Dearborn-based automaker announced Wednesday it would team up with Baidu Inc., China's equivalent of Google, on a two-year autonomous-vehicle testing project aimed at developing the self-driving vehicles and testing them on roads in China.

Ford's latest move in China comes a week after the automaker decided it would break its Chinese business unit away from what was previously called its Asia Pacific region. Ford appointed Anning Chen to CEO of Ford China. Chen aims to get Ford caught up in that market, where an aging lineup has hindered Ford this year.

Ford CEO Jim Hackett has pushed his executive team to grow Ford's footprint in China, the company's No. 2 market behind the United States. After larger-than-expected losses in China this year, Ford is launching several new vehicles there, is intensifying localization of some 90,000 Ford- and Lincoln-brand vehicles imported from the United States, and is pushing to localize Ford’s leadership in China. That included the hiring of the new CEO and reorganization of the businesses in Asia.

The autonomous vehicle partnership could potentially help Ford ready its robotic vehicles for a global launch. The automaker has said it will have the first-generation fleet of autonomous ready to go in 2021, but offered few specifics on the launch sites. Officials at Ford and Argo AI, the company Ford partnered with to develop the vehicles, have said the autonomous vehicles will launch "at scale," which means the vehicles will be deployed in multiple areas, not one geo-fenced area in a downtown.

"Working with a leading tech partner like Baidu allows us to leverage new opportunities in China to offer innovative solutions that improve safety, convenience and the overall mobility experience,” Sherif Marakby, president and CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, said in a statement. "This project marks a new milestone in the partnership between Ford and Baidu, and supports Ford’s vision to design smart vehicles that transform how we get around."

Ford and Baidu plan to begin on-road testing in Beijing at the end of 2018. When the tests wrap in two years, the carmaker said the vehicles "will be capable of operating autonomously within a specific geographic area and under certain weather conditions" in China.

Baidu has had a hand in autonomous driving development in China. The Beijing-headquartered company founded the Apollo Project, which provides software such as mapping technology for automakers and suppliers to use with their own hardware.

Essentially, the Apollo Project provides an operating system for the hardware auto companies are building, much like the Android or iOS operating system on a cellphone.

Ford is one of the partners in that project. Ford is also developing something similar in the U.S. dubbed the "Transportation Mobility Cloud," which aims to develop a network of services in something like an app store for mobility.

Ford and Baidu agreed to to explore other possible partnerships in connectivity, artificial intelligence and digital marketing.

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau