Ford, Argo eye new possibilities for autonomous cars

San Francisco — Jim Hackett doesn’t want to be handcuffed on how Ford’s first fully self-driving vehicles might be deployed in 2021.

The launch date for those autonomous cars without a steering wheel, brake pedal or an accelerator is still four years away, but Hackett, Ford Motor Co.’s new CEO, wants the company to think more broadly about the best use of that technology. In the past, Ford executives agreed that the first autonomous vehicles would operate in ride-hailing services on established routes.

Hackett doesn’t want to restrict Ford to that one use, he said during a recent interview with The Detroit News in San Francisco at Ford’s City of Tomorrow event. He wants options.

“We won’t define the markets,” he said. “(The market for autonomous vehicles) will change with this capability. … I would bring everybody into the same room and say you reported on this wrong, and all the automotive people, you told this story wrong. They all got it wrong, and let’s start to clear it up. Look at the computer industry. Why didn’t we say the first time you’re going to have a computer that can talk back to you?”

That’s a big change for Ford, and a line of thought that’s alien to an auto industry where executives and engineers are accustomed to knowing five years ahead of a launch which products will be in the lineup. With new and developing technology like autonomy, it’s unwise to commit too early to a final product, according to Hackett.

That critical thinking could pay off for Ford.

Sam Abuelsamid, analyst with Navigant Research, said, “If anything, I’d describe the attitude as a bit more bullish than (former CEO) Mark Fields, since they are looking at other usage.”

Bryan Salesky, CEO of Argo AI, suggests the robotic cars could operate as delivery vehicles or a freight service in addition to the ride-hailing option. Ford is paying Argo AI $1 billion to build the “brains” for those vehicles.

“We’re looking at all sorts of business models as to how to put this into production,” Salesky said during a Detroit News interview in San Francisco. “And one of the advantages of being partnered with an auto company is you’ve obviously got a number of vehicle platforms to draw from depending on the business model. (We are) collaborating on what are the right ones to go after.”

The teams at Ford and Argo are emphatic that they will have all of the technical capability to bring an autonomous vehicle in some form to market by 2021. Salesky said Argo will soon begin focusing on testing its virtual-driver program in preparation for that date.

Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification, explained Ford’s position on autonomy in a recent blog post.

“Ride-sharing and hailing is on the rise, and shopping at malls is giving way to buying online, which is increasing package delivery services,” Marakby wrote. “Therefore, we’re building a business to capitalize on both of these trends. We plan to develop and manufacture self-driving vehicles at scale, deployed in cooperation with multiple partners, and with a customer experience based on human-centered design principles.”

Salesky said Argo will have more than 30 autonomous vehicles testing on the road in Dearborn, Ann Arbor and Pittsburgh by the end of the year. Those vehicles, developed less than a year after Ford partnered with Argo, will fine-tune Argo’s virtual-driver system using Ford Fusions outfitted with the automaker’s suite of cameras, sensors, radar and lidar (light detection and ranging). They will have someone in the driver’s seat monitoring the system.

The partnership with Ford helped Salesky and Argo avoid a pitfall that technology companies like Alphabet Inc., Apple Inc. and Uber Technologies Inc. found after launching their own autonomous programs: Argo doesn’t have to worry about making an automobile.

Those Silicon Valley companies quickly discovered it was hard to build good cars to pair with the software, which resulted in those companies scaling back or scrapping the autonomous work.

In short, Ford brings a fleet of time-tested vehicles and other hardware, Argo brings the software. The companies focus all of that on one goal.

“We’re talking about a system of vehicles that will, if deployed properly, be a completely game-changing way of moving anything from A to B in a city,” Salesky said. “This technology can fundamentally change how cities move.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau

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