From the Cockpit, It's Ford's Self-Driving Car

Jim Motavalli

Jim Motavalli | Sep 13, 2016

DEARBORN, MICHIGAN—The self-driving car, a Ford Fusion Hybrid, is making its leisurely way around Ford’s sprawling campus here. It’s a “look Ma, no hands” moment—because the car is moving entirely by itself, and on a fairly crowded road, too. Across from a pond, where cutout dog silhouettes are failing to keep out a flock of Canada geese, a pedestrian starts across the street, and the car comes to a gentle stop.

This Ford Fusion Hybrid is bristling with autonomous tech, and it can make a commuter loop all on its own. (Jim Motavalli photo)

The journalists are in the back—this isn’t a “test drive,” it’s a “test ride.” But there are two guys up front, the “safety driver” behind the wheel (ready to take control if anything goes wrong); and the laptop-enabled test engineer (checking to see if the car is following orders).

Schuyler Cohen, the engineer and a robotics guy, is excited. “The technology is awesome,” he said. “I can’t believe they pay me for this—we’re doing really cool stuff. It can improve mobility and change lives, make cities better.”

Schuyler Cohen (right) and Jakob Hoellerbauer are the safety driver and test engineer for the "look Ma, no hands" test ride. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Oddly enough, the Fusion--one of 10 in the fleet, all white--felt a bit anticlimactic. With the guys up front, it was like they were driving, even though they weren't! The next day, we tried Fusion Energis with an actual 2017 production technology--adaptive cruise control with auto stop. That felt revolutionary. The Energi followed the car in front of it, with no need for braking if it stopped short. Not hitting the anchors when you're headed straight for the back of another car is nerve-wracking.

The self-driving car is a work in progress. Velodyne Lidar rotated on the roof, and the car is also equipped with mono, stereo and high-resolution cameras, plus both short- and long-range radar. According to Greg Stevens, Ford’s global manager of autonomous vehicles, the car we rode in primarily relies on precise 3D mapping, with plenty of assistance from the onboard technology. Currently, the computer-aided gear takes over the trunk, but that's just an interim step--don't expect spinning Lidars on cars when this program finally launches.

Greg Stevens, Ford's autonomous car honcho, explains the tech--which in the test cars also takes over the trunk. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Our route across the sprawling corporate campus roughly mirrors one that will be taken by a new autonomous shuttle service that Ford will offer to headquarters employees in 2018, Stevens said.  

Cohen says he’s confident that Ford can fulfill the vision outlined by CEO Mark Fields earlier in the day. The company will have fleets of fully autonomous cars (so-called Level 4, without drivers, steering wheels or pedals) on the road, in ride-sharing fleets, by 2021.

Ford's Mark Fields says big changes are coming--the company will sell mobility, not just cars. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Ford is 113 years old, but at the sixth annual Further With Ford event it was making clear that it’s focused on new paradigms—and a big change in the way it does business. “Thirty vehicles are sold every minute," Fields said. “And in that same minute, seven million miles are driven, 60,000 shared rides are taken, and 350,000 apps are downloaded.”

Spinning Lidar on the Ford Fusion Hybrid's roof. Radar and cameras are also part of the picture. (Jim Motavalli photo)

Earlier that day, the vision was further refined by Raj Nair, Ford’s vice president for product development, who said that five years after those first fleets the company might offer self-driving cars to private buyers. That, of course, assumes that they’ll ever be sold that way. Nair himself says that Ford is being cautious with its autonomous rollout, and the commuter pilot (staying on the company's property) is a tentative step forward. Sam Abuelsamid, an analyst at Navigant Research, told me in Dearborn that a lot is still unsettled, and perhaps we’ll skip the ownership step. It could be that tomorrow’s autonomous vehicles will only ever be owned by big sharing fleets (maybe merged with today’s auto giants).

Ford's Raj Nair (right) with journalist Dan Lyons. Nair said we might be able to buy self-driving cars around 2026, but maybe we won't be able to buy them at all. (Jim Motavalli photo)

There’s still plenty of uncertainty about this. Ford says its cars will be operating in fleets, but declines to comment on whether it actually intends to own such operations. "We’re concentrating on the product for now—I don’t have anything on that for you,” said one Ford executive, who asked for anonymity.

Ford Smart Mobility just bought Chariot, a San Francisco-based commuter ride-hailing service. (Chariot photo)

Ford, like other leaders in the field—Audi, GM, Tesla—is feeling its way, often with outside partners. No one feels they have the whole autonomy picture at this point. GM famously bought into Lyft, and Ford Smart Mobility just purchased San Francisco-based Chariot, a new ride-sharing company for commuters in San Francisco.

It helps that the company’s transit vans are Fords. Chariot will expand into five or more other markets in the next year and a half.

The new Ford says it’s all about innovation, so we met with three employees who have invented technology for tomorrow. The first was On the Go H2O, from powertrain engineer Doug Martin. You know that water that drips out of auto air conditioners and spots the garage floor? Martin’s invention—made with a catch pan from his kitchen and a neat faucet from Home Depot, captures that water and dispenses it as clean drinking water for the driver and passengers.

Oleg Gusikhin, a Ford technical leader, offered an app that can change the climate and infotainment settings of any car you’re riding in. It came to him while he was riding in a taxi in Beijing, and the driver couldn’t understand his requests to change the temperature. Phone as Car, it’s called.

CarrE can carry people, packages, or scare the neighborhood dogs. (Jim Motavalli photo)

And finally there was CarrE, a round mobility platform that is just 20 inches in diameter and weighs 22 pounds. The brainchild of Killian Vas, a Ford systems engineer, it can be a Segway-type transporter, with a maximum speed of 11 mph—and 14 miles of range (with 35-minute charge times), or it can be a personal valet and carry your suitcase (up to 260 pounds)—either controlled by a phone app or programmed to simply follow you. I admired the versatility of the device, which had car-like features—including working headlights.

Everyone agrees we’re heading to a profound shift in mobility, but to a surprising degree the details of that are still very much in the air. Maybe we’ll all be running around on CarrEs.

Here's Ford's self-driving car from inside the cockpit:

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