Ford to sell urban self-driving vehicles by 2021

In a flurry of announcements concerning autonomous cars this week, Ford said it would partner with four companies and offer ride-sharing, self-driving vehicles in five years.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET
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When you digitally hail a robo-taxi on the on the streets of your megalopolis in five years, it just might bear a Ford blue oval badge. That's the new plan announced by Ford today, which expects to be selling fully-autonomous self-driving cars for urban ride-sharing fleets by 2021.

Ford backs up this plan by doubling the staff in its Silicon Valley Research and Innovation Center, and adding two new buildings. This morning, Ford also announced investment in LIDAR sensor maker Velodyne, and partnerships with three other companies that enable self-driving cars. SAIPS is a vision and machine learning company, Nirenberg Neuroscience also works in machine vision and Civil Maps develops high-resolution 3D maps.

This Fusion is one of Ford's early autonomous test cars. At CES 2016, Ford unveiled a new generation of solid-state LIDAR sensors that are half as large as the cans on the roof of this example.

Antuan Goodwin/CNET

Self-driving, or autonomous cars, use sensors, GPS and onboard computing power to recognize their environments and take passengers to destinations. Almost every major automaker is developing this technology, while the National Highway Transportation Safety Administration has been supporting it as a means of reducing the 32,500 fatalities that occur on US roads every year.

Ford CEO Mark Fields likens the impact of self-driving cars to Henry Ford's automated assembly line. Talking about the growth potential of autonomous cars in the near future, Fields said "Automotive is a $2.3 trillion business around the world, while taxi and car services account for over $5 trillion. Ford needs to be a part of that."

The self-driving cars that Ford proposed today would not have steering wheels or other driver controls, but they also wouldn't be the type of car that you typically buy off a dealer lot. Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president of Global Product Development, said they would be geo-fenced to particular urban areas. The cars would be targeted at ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft.

With this focus, Ford can solve the problems of self-driving in a low-speed urban environment with well-defined maps, instead of dealing with the larger problems presented by poorly mapped or marked roads. Still, the urban environment presents many challenges, such as a large numbers of pedestrians, bicyclists and car traffic.

Nair pointed out that Ford has been developing self-driving cars for 10 years. The five year target is also in line with other automakers' projections.