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Ford remains wary of Tesla-like autonomous driving features

Lucas Mearian | Aug. 22, 2016
Ford plans to bring out Traffic Jam Assist for consumer vehicles

At a time when Tesla has already rolled out advanced autonomous driving features in its cars, Ford is proceeding more cautiously because it believes the industry is not ready to hand over such features to consumers.

On Tuesday, Ford announced that by 2021 it plans to offer a fully self-driving (autonomous) vehicle for multi-passenger shuttles and ride-hailing services such as Uber. The vehicle will be manufactured with no steering wheel, no gas or brake pedal. In other words, no driver necessary.

Well before 2021, Ford will be testing prototypes on U.S. roadways of those fully-autonomous vehicles, according to Randy Visintainer, director of Autonomous Vehicles at Ford. The automaker hopes a fleet of self-driving vehicle shuttles and ride-hailing services can tap into a market that includes the elderly, infirm or young who are not able to drive.

Ford isn't alone. Volvo Cars just penned a deal with Uber, the world’s leading ride-sharing company, to develop a generation of autonomous driving cars. Uber also announced its first fleet of semi-autonomous Volvo X90 SUVs will hit the streets of Pittsburgh this year.

Volvo XC90 SUVs will be outfitted with dozens of sensors that use cameras, lasers, radar and GPS receivers, according to a report by Bloomberg. A "handful of vehicles" have so far been delivered to Uber, with 100 expected by the end of the year. Earlier this year, Uber and Volvo signed a $300 million deal to develop a road-ready, fully autonomous car by 2021.

In announcing the autonomous fleet plans, Ford executives declined to talk about  possible ride-sharing partnerships. They also made it clear that fully autonomous technology would not be coming to consumer vehicles for at least "several" years after 2021 because it doesn't make "economic sense."

Advanced self-driving feature too advanced for consumers

The problem with offering near-fully autonomous driving features to consumers is there's currently no way to ensure drivers will be engaged enough to retake control of a vehicle when its advanced driver assistance system (ADAS) gets in a jam, Visintainer said.

sae autonomous driving levels graphic
SAE International and J3016

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International has established six autonomous driving categories: level 0 represents no automation and level 5 is a fully-autonomous vehicle.

"The concern is if you needed to get them back into the loop quickly for some reason, how can you be sure they're ready to be brought back into the loop," Visintainer said.

ADAS systems that drive the car, then hand control back over when in a bind, are virtually as complicated to roll out as fully-autonomous systems, he added.


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