Ford creates robotics, artificial intelligence team

Ian Thibodeau
The Detroit News

Ford Motor Co. plans to create a Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Research team aimed at boosting technology development for the automaker as autonomy and mobility become more important parts of the company.

Ken Washington, Ford vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer, wrote in a Thursday blog post that “the impact of robotics and artificial intelligence on the way we get around  —  even in just the next five to 10 years  —  is potentially enormous,” and the new team will help Ford focus on developing elements to help the company meet its goal to change how people move.

The team brings parts of Ford’s research wing onto one team to evaluate vehicle sensor technology, machine learning methods and the development of personal mobility devices, drones and “other aerial robotics to enhance first-and-last mile travel,” according to Washington’s blog.

The team will be based in Dearborn, with an outpost next to the University of Michigan’s MCity research center for autonomous and connected vehicles, Ford said Thursday. The company wouldn’t say how many people will be part of the Robotics and Artificial Intelligence Research group.

The move will push forward projects already underway in autonomous vehicle development, among other things.

Ford plans to bring its first-generation fully autonomous vehicle to market by 2021. That car won’t have a steering wheel or pedals, and will most likely be deployed in a fleet contained to certain “geo-fenced” areas of a city or campus.

The new team will have an emphasis on advancing autonomous technology while an artificial intelligence company, Argo AI, develops the brains of the Ford self-driving vehicles. Washington said earlier in June that Argo already has all of the information and data it needs from Ford to make the first-generation car work.

The new robotics team will collaborate with Argo “so they can someday put this promising emerging technology to work in future generations of self-driving vehicles,” Washington wrote.

That will lead to Ford having two separate fleets of self-driving vehicles testing on the road, according to the blog. One will be led by the new Ford team, and the other will be run by Argo as it develops that virtual driver system.

Outside of autonomous development, the robotics and AI team will look at ways to implement robotics in “ergonomically difficult tasks,” continue relationship-building with startup companies, and lead projects with University of Michigan, Stanford University, M.I.T., Virginia Tech, Purdue University, Texas A&M, Georgia Institute of Technology and other universities.

“This is the next step in Ford’s automation story,” Washington wrote. “This decision is driving energy with everyone on our team, as it clearly indicates the direction of Ford Motor Company. Because we understand the science of robotics and artificial intelligence, we can establish a team tasked with not just watching the future, but helping to create it.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau