After years of slowly walking their way to higher levels of driver assists, Ford have finally announced a bold development plan for the future. In 2021, just 5 years from now, are planning on selling (in high-volume), fully autonomous SAE level 4-capable vehicles. The most common application of this is expected to be commercial ride sharing services.
To deliver that goal, Ford are investing in and collaborating with 4 startups to enhance its autonomous vehicle development, doubling its Silicon Valley team and more than doubling its Palo Alto campus. The expanded Palo Alto campus opens in mid-2017 and will add 2 new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space adjacent to the current Research and Innovation Center. The expanded campus grows the company’s local footprint and supports plans to double the size of the Palo Alto team by the end of 2017 which currently consists of more than 130 researchers, engineers and scientists.
Ford’s President and CEO, Mark Fields said,
“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,”
“We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”
Ford’s been promoting their Smart Mobility plan for the future of transporting for years now, but this is the most exciting development so far. Ford doesn’t just want to be a player, they plan on being a leader in the autonomous vehicles market, as well as in connectivity, mobility, customer experience, data and analytics.
Ford’s first fully autonomous vehicle will be a Society of Automotive Engineers-rated level 4-capable vehicle without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. That is far more progressive than many would have expected from a large auto maker like Ford. While there’s been technology demonstrations by Google that offers driving convenience without controls, its a very bold plan by ford to start shipping product without driving inputs.
Just to be clear, Ford are targeting this new product line specifically for commercial mobility services, such as ride sharing and ride hailing, in high volumes, read: we’d love to sell to Uber and Lyft.
“Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years,” said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development, and chief technical officer. “We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world.”
This year, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to be the largest test fleet of any automaker – bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans on the roads in California, Arizona and Michigan, with plans to triple it again next year.
Ford’s finally getting serious about the experiments they’ve been working on, and as the first automaker to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in the snow and at night, in complete darkness, they’re clearly starting to get a high level of confidence the technology, both hardware and software is ready.
To ship a fully autonomous vehicle in 2021, Ford is making 4 key investments to expanding its strong research in advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, LiDAR, and radar and camera sensors:
- Velodyne: Ford has invested in Velodyne, the Silicon Valley-based leader in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors. The aim is to quickly mass-produce a more affordable automotive LiDAR sensor. Ford has a longstanding relationship with Velodyne, and was among the first to use LiDAR for both high-resolution mapping and autonomous driving beginning more than 10 years ago
- SAIPS: Ford has acquired the Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company to further strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhance computer vision. SAIPS has developed algorithmic solutions in image and video processing, deep learning, signal processing and classification. This expertise will help Ford autonomous vehicles learn and adapt to the surroundings of their environment
- Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC: Ford has an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine vision company founded by neuroscientist Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, who cracked the neural code the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain. This has led to a powerful machine vision platform for performing navigation, object recognition, facial recognition and other functions, with many potential applications. For example, it is already being applied by Dr. Nirenberg to develop a device for restoring sight to patients with degenerative diseases of the retina. Ford’s partnership with Nirenberg Neuroscience will help bring humanlike intelligence to the machine learning modules of its autonomous vehicle virtual driver system
- Civil Maps: Ford has invested in Berkeley, California-based Civil Maps to further develop high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. Civil Maps has pioneered an innovative 3D mapping technique that is scalable and more efficient than existing processes. This provides Ford another way to develop high-resolution 3D maps of autonomous vehicle environments
Ford vice president, Research and Advanced Engineering, Ken Washington said,
“Our presence in Silicon Valley has been integral to accelerating our learning and deliverables driving Ford Smart Mobility. Our goal was to become a member of the community. Today, we are actively working with more than 40 startups, and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of technologies and services.”
Watch # CTO Raj Nair discuss Ford’s approach to autonomy covering SAE Level 4 and 5.