Ford soon will hit the road in autonomous cars

BACK TO THE FUTURE: The Ford Fusion takes to the road for an autonomous test drive.
BACK TO THE FUTURE: The Ford Fusion takes to the road for an autonomous test drive.
Ford Motor Company

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Remember when you got into your car, put a key in the ignition and drove away? Now there are keyless ignitions that let you leave your key in your pocket and only require the push of a button to start the car. Ford wants to make that look old school with plans to introduce fully autonomous cars by 2021.

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That’s only five years from now, which isn’t a heck of a lot of time to make good on the promise. It’s not going to be a limited, one-off vehicle either, but a high-volume vehicle for use by ridesharing services. The driver of the ride you hail downtown, in five years, might be the car itself.

Self-driving is not as cool as flying cars, but it’s still a slice of the future that is happening faster than many expected. We have autonomous features in our cars already, but the idea of having a fully autonomous car is another story.

Take a look at the average new car and you’ll find plenty of autonomous features. They can park themselves, brake themselves, and even stay in the lane if you lose focus and start to drift. These are the baby steps of autonomous technology and they’re quickly becoming commonplace.

There are even cars that can drive without human assistance, although the laws in the US require a driver behind the wheel. The most well-known of the lot is Tesla’s Autopilot. It uses a combination of cameras, radar, and sensors to steer down the highway. It can even change lanes and adjust speed as traffic slows.

But the Tesla Model S is not a fully autonomous vehicle. It requires a driver at all times and, even while in Autopilot mode, that driver needs to have his hands on the wheel and his attention on the road.

Unfortunately, not every driver has obeyed Tesla’s instructions and there have been several accidents and even a fatality in Teslas that were operating in unsupervised Autopilot mode. It’s not clear whether it was driver error or car error, but these mishaps do raise some concerns about how well the technology works and whether the public is ready.

Ford thinks we’ll be there in five years, so they’ve partnered with four separate companies that each specialize in an area essential to autonomous vehicle development. Velodyne is a Silicon Valley company that develops LiDAR sensors. Ford hopes their partnership will help create something affordable enough to use in mass production.

There’s also SAIPS, which specializes in artificial intelligence. Yes, your car will have to think for itself and Ford will use this technology to teach its cars to react to the environment and react correctly to what it encounters on the road.

Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC works with facial and object recognition platforms. As humans, we take in all of our surroundings and use the combined input to make decisions when we drive. This partnership will help cars do the same thing.

Lastly, there’s Civil Maps which makes 3D maps. While autonomous cars will be able to see what’s on the road, they also need 3D maps that are accurate in order to navigate those roads efficiently and route themselves around any traffic jams.

Ford is also expanding its Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California. They’re doubling its size so they can increase their staff and speed the pace of development.

This commitment to autonomous technology is nothing new for Ford. They were the first company to test their vehicles in the University of Michigan’s simulated urban environment, Mcity, and they were the first to show off autonomous vehicles operating in the snow and in the dark.

It’s all a part of Ford Smart Mobility, which aims to take Ford from being simply a company that builds cars and trucks to a company that focuses on the whole transportation experience. The approach combines vehicles, technology, and connectivity and aims to keep Ford relevant no matter what happens to the good old automobile.

Their autonomous ridesharing fleet will be a huge step toward the future of transportation. These cars will have no steering wheel, no gas pedal, and no brake pedal so they will truly be self-driving. It’s a big change from where we are today.

The technology is definitely coming, whether it’s in five years from Ford or sometime in the future from another automaker. The bigger question isn’t whether or not it will happen, but whether or not the public wants to give up the steering wheel.

For many people, driving is a chore and something they try to avoid. They see cars as nothing more than necessary appliances and will likely be thrilled to give up the task of driving at the first opportunity. If you like driving, then this vision of the future might not look so rosy.

Ford plans to deliver fully autonomous vehicles in just five years no matter how you feel about the idea, so you better get ready to give up that steering wheel and take a permanent back seat.