How Ford will create a new Generation of Driverless Cars
In four years Ford will be mass producing cars without a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal
The company believes that the future of the market lies in producing vehicles where a driver is not even required.
It has just announced a $1bn (£800m) investment in Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company which will produce the software needed for a new generation of self-driving cars.
Ford’s investment over five years will see the new company develop the software needed to make self drive cars a reality, initially in cities and then across a wider area.
It expects to profit from not only having its own autonomous car on the road in 2021, but by licensing the technology to other companies, including rival manufacturers.
Ford believes that the cost of owning, maintaining and parking a car in a city means that people will look for an alternative way of getting around and that is where its vision comes in.
The simplest way to look at the technology is to see it as the logical next step from a car club – or perhaps Uber without a driver.
A trip to the supermarket, for example, would entail summoning a self-drive car using a mobile phone app to get there and then repeating the process to go home with a week’s groceries.
It could be possible to go out for a night on the town without worrying about having a designated driver. “It would be a service where you pay for the time using a car, or a cost per mile,” a Ford spokesman explained.
The company estimates that the global car ownership market is worth $2.3 trillion. It has put a $5.4 trillion price tag on what it calls mobility services, including buses, walking, subways and cycling. Not surprisingly, car companies want a slice of that action as well.
General Motors has been more cautious about disclosing its plans. But the company has 40 Chevrolet Volt autonomous cars being tested in San Francisco, Detroit and Scottsdale, Arizona. There is an engineer in the driving seat ready to take over.
As yet it has not specified a timetable for unveiling its self-drive cars, although it says they will first be deployed in conjunction with the Lyft ride sharing service.
Toyota is also spending $1bn working with a number of academic bodies including the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University.
It has divided its approach to the technology into two products, Guardian and Chauffeur. Guardian will add more safety features on models, but the driver will remain in control unless the technology senses, for example, a need to slam on the brakes.
Many of these features are already in use. Much of the same technology will be employed in Chauffeur, but it will be active all the time – effectively driving the car.
Gill Pratt, chief of the Toyota Research Institute, admitted that advocates of self-driving cars still have to win the confidence of consumers.
“Historically, humans have shown nearly zero-tolerance for injury or death caused by flaws in a machine,” he said at the Consumer Electronics Show last month.
“And yet we know that the artificial intelligence systems on which our autonomous cars will depend are presently and unavoidably imperfect.”
Car manufacturers are making a massive investment – some would say gamble – in a technology which has its critics. There are many who still question whether cars really are safer when they are controlled by a computer rather than a person. Sceptics point to the death of Joshua Brown in Williston, Florida, last May.
The former navy seal’s Tesla S saloon car was in self driving mode when it ploughed into a tractor-trailer after the car’s sophisticated battery of technology failed to spot the white sided truck against a brightly lit sky, and brake.
Supporters of driverless cars believe that one accident should not undermine a technology which in the long run will improve driver safety, cut pollution, eke more out of America’s road capacity and create jobs.
Road safety in America is poor. According to the latest estimates around 40,000 people were killed on the country’s roads last year.
To put that into context, according to World Health Organisation figures, 10.6 people per 100,000 population are killed on roads in the US compared with 2.9 in the UK.
This goes a long way towards explaining why there is considerable enthusiasm for driverless technology in Washington.
Many policymakers believe that if the human factor is taken out, then casualties will fall. Anthony Foxx, transportation secretary in the Obama administration, was a huge supporter of autonomous technology.
“Early indications are that the first few minutes of a ride in an autonomous car can be pretty scary to people who haven’t been in one before,” he said in one interview.
“But people get used to it quickly. People having real-life experiences with the technology will help in the long run. I’m sure that when the horse-and-buggy gave way to the automobile, there was probably an acceptance factor there as well.”
Last September, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration published a list of guidelines for the industry covering everything from data protection to the sobriety of somebody taking control of the car if the technology fails.
If anything, the Trump administration will adopt a more laissez-faire approach. Elaine Chao, the new transportation secretary, was averse to regulation when she served as labour secretary under George W Bush.
That seems to be the view in Silicon Valley as well, which has welcomed the Trump administration’s choice. “The autonomous vehicle industry could not have asked for a better pick as secretary of transportation than Elaine Chao,” said Grayson Brulte, who runs an innovation consulting firm.
“She has a proven track record of light regulation and she has made positive statements about the future impact of autonomous vehicles in our society. Ultimately, autonomous forms of transportation will completely transform our society and usher in the single greatest change since the industrial revolution.”
Oliver McGee, who served as a scientific adviser to Bill Clinton’s administration, believes the technology will be central to the Trump administration’s pledge to boost the US economy.
“Capital plus technology equals growth, it is basic economics,” he told The Daily Telegraph.
“This is what will be driving Donald Trump’s target for [above three per cent] growth. He needs innovation. “Autonomous vehicles will be part of a very large investment undertaken by Elaine Chao.
Her task will be to get Congress to support the $1 trillion spending over the next 10 years.”
This, of course, represents a major cultural shift for the auto industry, which for decades has sold cars on the basis that driving was something to be enjoyed, rather than handed over to a computer. There is also the basic question for all the companies whether consumers will buy into the idea.
“I think this is a tipping point issue,” said John Quelch, professor of marketing at Harvard Business School. “With any innovation there is a group of opinion leaders and early adopters who will set the stage and enable the concept to reach a critical mass.
Then there is a period of two to three years where people get used to the idea and are convinced of its value. “It is most likely to take off among car users who are using a particular stretch of highway or suburban mothers who are transporting their children to school for example.
“I think in 20 years in major cities, 50pc of cars will be driverless.”
Others, such as Adam Jonas, global head of automotive and shared mobility at Morgan Stanley, are more cautious. “If by the year 2030 more than 2pc to 3pc of miles travelled are truly autonomous, that would be a really impressive number.”