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Ford: We Will Mass-Produce Fully Driverless Cars by 2021

The company wants to offer cars that can operate without a human for ride-hailing within five years.

Looking for a hard timeline on when fully driverless vehicles will be roaming the streets? Try 2021.

That’s the target Ford Motor Co. announced on Aug. 16, marking a deadline about as ambitious as any in the industry. According to a press release, the company is aiming to mass-produce a car by that year that meets the Society of Automotive Engineers’ (SAE) definition for level four autonomy — that is, vehicles that can handle all aspects of driving without a human.

"There will be no steering wheels, no gas pedals and no brake pads," Mark Fields, Ford's president and chief executive officer, said in a video.

The company specified that the cars it’s envisioning would be part of a ride-sharing or ride-hailing program. Ford has already begun experimenting with models of shared ownership, with a Texas dealership looking for customers interested in sharing leases on vehicles.

“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,” said Fields in the statement.

Driverless cars — as opposed to self-driving cars that rely on humans from time to time — would offer a path toward fundamentally shifting transportation systems. People could share vehicles instead of owning them outright. Vehicles could drive more efficiently, possibly leading to reduced congestion. They might make it easier for people to use public transit. And they might eliminate a large portion of accidents and related deaths.

Ford’s goal is subtly different from the most advanced level of autonomy, though. Level five under SAE’s definitions describes a vehicle that can drive without a human in all conditions. A level four vehicle could drive without a human, but only in certain conditions. The California Department of Motor Vehicles has, by proposing a rule that would require humans behind the wheel, visualized those conditions broadly as being separated into urban and rural, highway and surface street. A level four vehicle, then, might be able to drive only on urban surface streets.

As the months until 2021 tick down, Ford faces stiff competition from companies both within and outside of the auto industry. Tesla has already rolled out Autopilot mode for the Model S and its customers have driven millions of miles with the feature, giving the company data on how it performs in the process. General Motors has set short-term target dates to roll out semi-autonomous features in some of its cars and is testing more advanced concepts in private areas. The list continues — Nissan, Toyota, Volvo and Daimler are all racing to develop connected and self-driving vehicles.

Aside from the new goal, Ford also announced five business moves it said will help it meet its 2021 target:

  1. It’s setting up a dedicated research facility in Palo Alto, Calif., home to Stanford University and established automated driving experts. That will involve two new buildings, 150,000 new square feet and a doubling of its staff in Palo Alto by the end of 2017.
  2. The company has invested in the California-based Velodyne, which makes LIDAR sensors. Many companies in the self-driving vehicle industry have turned to LIDAR, which uses lasers to sense objects, as a complement to radar to achieve redundancy and help vehicles see objects under more environmental conditions.
  3. Ford has acquired the Israeli company SAIPS, which is working on computer vision and machine learning. Ford is counting on the company to help its cars process images and video, and adapt based on what it sees.
  4. Ford has entered into an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience to develop machine learning based on object recognition in a style based on human eyesight.
  5. The company has invested in Civil Maps, a California 3-D mapping company.
Ben Miller is the associate editor of data and business for Government Technology. His reporting experience includes breaking news, business, community features and technical subjects. He holds a Bachelor’s degree in journalism from the Reynolds School of Journalism at the University of Nevada, Reno, and lives in Sacramento, Calif.