Ford expands self-driving vehicle fleet to Austin

Ford is adding another city to the list of places it’s going to be deploying self-driving vehicles: Austin. The automaker revealed that the Texas city would join Miami-Dade County and Washington, D.C. as the third deployment location for its autonomous vehicle testing and commercial service development.

As with its prior roll-outs, Ford will first begin by putting its Fusion Hybrid AV test vehicles, which are powered by Argo AI autonomous driving technology, on Austin roads by the end of November to begin mapping the city. Mapping cars will have a safety driver and an observer on board, and the cars will be collecting data to build the HD maps needed for eventual deployment of pilot commercial services with partners.

Ford will be announcing the specific location of the terminal from which its AVs will be operating soon, but said that the cars will be operating in the Downtown and east Austin areas to start, but that eventually they’ll look to expand as much as the market requires, going “as big as Austin allows us from a delivery standpoint,” according to Sherif Marakby, the CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles.

Marakby said on a briefing with journalists that Austin represents another very different and varied environment in which to test its technology, with a busy downtown, college areas and more. Autonomous vehicles should be able to “solve some issues” when working in tandem with the city, he added.

Ford’s strategy in developing and deploying AVs is to work on both the autonomous technology and the business aspects simultaneously, which is why it’s going to be looking for pilot businesses to partner with in the area. In the course of its research both in Austin and in its existing cities, it’s looking to figure out what the right mix is in terms of goods and package delivery, and ride-hailing and personal transportation.

Marakby says that Ford is still planning to deploy its AV fleet commercially for customers by 2021, and that Austin will be part of that deployment. He added that this will incorporate both passenger and goods transportation in response to a question about whether package delivery would precede moving people, but that the “exact mix will be determined as they work on segmentation.”

As for the vehicles themselves, the current Fusion Hybrid AVs are testing vehicles only, which are useful to Ford in developing and testing their technology stack, but the vehicles in actual commercial service will be purpose-built cars designed specifically for autonomous use.

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This vehicle will be a hybrid-electric, which “makes sense from the perspective of running all day” and decreasing down-time due to charging, Marakby says. It’ll also be a commercial-grade vehicle, since “in autonomous mode, it’s hundreds of thousands of miles in a short period of time,” he added. The vehicle will also feature easy entry and exit and comfortable seating for passengers, but there will be a custom version that will be focused on goods transportation as well.

Ford expands self-driving vehicle program to Washington, D.C.

Ford is bringing its autonomous vehicles to Washington, D.C., the fourth city to join the automaker’s testing program as it prepares to launch a self-driving taxi and delivery service in 2021.

Ford will begin testing its self-driving vehicles in the district in the first quarter of 2019. The company is already is testing in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Miami. 

Ford is a bit different from other companies that have launched autonomous vehicle pilots in the U.S. Ford is pursuing two parallels tracks — testing the business model and autonomous technology — that will eventually combine ahead of its commercial launch in 2021.

Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based company into which Ford invested $1 billion in 2017, is developing the virtual driver system and high-definition maps designed for Ford’s self-driving vehicles. Meanwhile, Ford is testing its go-to-market strategy through pilot programs with partners like Domino’s and Postmates, and even some local businesses.

The testing program in DC will follow that same thinking, with an emphasis on job creation and equitable deployment. Ford says its autonomous vehicles will be in all eight of the district’s wards. Eventually, it will operate business pilot programs in all eight wards, as well . Ford has already established an autonomous vehicle operations terminal in Ward 5, where it will house, manage and conduct routine maintenance on the fleet and continue developing its vehicle management process.

Argo AI already has vehicles on DC’s streets, mapping roads in the first step toward testing in autonomous mode, the company said.

“Both Ford and district officials are committed to exploring how self-driving vehicles can be deployed in an equitable way across the various neighborhoods that make up Washington, D.C., and in a way that promotes job creation,” Sherif Marakby, CEO, Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC wrote in a Medium post Monday.

Marakby underscored a recent report by Securing America’s Future Energy that found autonomous technology could improve people’s access to jobs as well as retail markets.

Ford announced in July 2018 plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business. The new entity, Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, houses the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. The spending plan includes a $1 billion investment in startup Argo AI.

Ford plans to spend $4 billion on autonomous vehicles by 2023

Ford Motor plans to spend $4 billion through 2023 in a newly created LLC dedicated to building out an autonomous vehicles business.

The automaker announced Tuesday it has created Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, which will house the company’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous-vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. The $4 billion spending plan includes a $1 billion investment in startup Argo AI .

The new LLC will be primarily based at Ford’s Corktown campus in Detroit and will hold Ford’s ownership stake in Argo AI, the company’s Pittsburgh-based partner for self-driving system development.

Sherif Marakby, who heads up Ford’s autonomous vehicles and electrification division, has been appointed CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC. He’ll report to a board of directors chaired by Marcy Klevorn, Ford’s executive vice president and president of mobility, a larger department that also houses Ford Smart Mobility LLC.

The investment in Argo AI — the startup launched by former Google self-driving project veteran Bryan Salesky and Peter Rander, who was the engineering lead at the Uber Advanced Technologies Group — has been public since the deal was first announced in February 2017.

But the total planned spend of $4 billion has not. The investment figure, and Ford’s decision to create a new organization dedicated to all things autonomous vehicles, provides some clues to the automaker’s ultimate ambitions. Ford’s work on autonomous vehicles was scattered throughout the company, from product development and research departments to its marketing and planning organizations.

Its decision to bring all of these various pieces together suggests the company is evolving from research and testing toward an autonomous vehicle business. In short, it sees a path toward commercial deployment.

“Ford has made tremendous progress across the self driving value chain — from technology development to business model innovation to user experience,” said Ford CEO Jim Hackett . “Now is the right time to consolidate our autonomous driving platform into one team to best position the business for the opportunities ahead.”

In June, Ford laid out a plan to spend the next four years transforming at least 1.2 million square feet of space in Corktown — Detroit’s oldest neighborhood — into a hub for its electric and autonomous vehicles businesses.

Ford plans to house 2,500 Ford employees, most from its emerging mobility team, in its new Corktown campus by 2022. The new campus will have space to accommodate 2,500 additional employees of partners and other businesses. The remaining 300,000 square feet will serve as a mix of community and retail space and residential housing.