PALO ALTO, Calif. (Aug. 17, 2016) — Ford Motor Co., which put the world on wheels a century ago, is now taking the driver out of the driver's seat.
The Dearborn, Mich.-based auto maker said it plans to have a fully autonomous vehicle — no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedals — available by 2021 for ride-hailing services.
“We see the autonomous car changing the way the world moves once again,” Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields said at Ford's research lab in Palo Alto. “They address a whole host of safety, social and environmental issues.”
Like Alphabet Inc.'s Google autonomous car, Ford will skip the interim steps of driver-assisted technology as a way to evolve toward full autonomy. Its plan to deploy self-driving cars in ride-hailing and ride-sharing fleets is similar to what General Motors Co. aims to do with Lyft Inc. Ford's 2021 scheduled start matches BMW's ambitious timeframe.
“We believe in our plan that taking the driver out of the loop is really important,” Mr. Fields said in an interview with Bloomberg Television. The auto maker couldn't find a sensible way through the “no-man's land” — determining exactly when a robotic car should to try to re-engage a human driver in an emergency.
The second-biggest U.S. auto maker didn't say how many autonomous cars it plans to produce by 2021. On Aug. 16, Ford said it's doubling the number of people at the Silicon Valley lab to 260 while expanding to two more buildings. It also invested $75 million in the leading maker of an advanced radar system to accelerate its development of self-driving cars.
There's some catching up to do: Google's self-driving car project has already amassed 1.8 million miles of public road testing. Ford said it's investing in or collaborating with four startups on autonomous vehicles, bringing its roster of such partnerships to 40.
Ford's plan lacks specifics of how it will make this great leap to full automation, said Michelle Krebs, senior analyst for researcher Autotrader.
“I'm not seeing all the pieces of the puzzle in place because they don't have a relationship with a ride hailing service like Uber or Lyft,” Ms. Krebs said. “It's a first step and at least Wall Street will see that they're working on this.”
Ford and China's top search engine company, Baidu Inc., are each investing $75 million in Velodyne Lidar Inc., the auto maker said Aug. 16 in a statement. Lidar bounces light off objects to assess shape and location, giving self-driving cars a 360-degree view of their environment with the help of cameras and traditional radar. Morgan Hill, Calif.-based Velodyne said the money will help it improve design and expand production, making the sensors more affordable for mass adoption.
Ford wants “to do as much as they can internally, but also acknowledge that it's best to partner with those who have the leading technology,” said Jeff Schuster, an analyst at research firm LMC Automotive.