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One of Ford's fleet of autonomous-driving Fusion Hybrid test vehicles during testing on a public road (courtesy Ford).

Ford promises full-autonomous car in 2021

Get ready for the “pod” car: Ford announced today that it intends to mass-produce a driverless, fully autonomous vehicle for commercial ride-sharing or ride-hailing service in 2021.

The vehicle apparently will be the embodiment of today’s notion of the driverless-vehicle extreme: it will have no steering wheel, brake or accelerator pedals, said president and CEO Mark Fields during the announcement at the company’s Palo Alto, CA, research campus. Fields compared the impact of vehicle autonomy to the company's innovation of the moving assembly line.

The Ford driverless vehicle will operate at Level 4 autonomy on the SAE-standard 5-level autonomous-technology scale, meaning it is classified as offering “high automation” that can operate the vehicle under all conditions in certain driving “modes” without the potential need for human attention or intervention.

“The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile, and we see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Fields in a release. “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.”

Ford also said it is tripling its current autonomous-vehicle test fleet to 30 Fusion Hybrid sedans, which operate on roads and test facilities in California, Arizona and Michigan; by next year, the autonomous test fleet will near 100 vehicles.

The company also announced it is expanding its Palo Alto technology campus with two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work space, with the intention of doubling the facility’s workforce by sometime next year.

Autonomous-tech investments and acquisitions

Concurrently, Ford said it is investing in or acquiring four companies engaged in development of crucial aspects of autonomous technology. Best-known may be Velodyne, based in Silicon Valley, which develops LIDAR (Light Detecting And Ranging) systems. Ford is investing in Velodyne to speed the advance of smaller and less-costly LIDAR equipment. The company said was one of the first to engage with Velodyne in LIDAR research more than a decade ago.

A licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC will give Ford access to Nirenberg’s machine-vision and -learning technology, based on understanding of the neural code used by the eyes to transmit data to the brain. Nirenberg has developed a machine-vision platform for robust navigation and object and facial recognition capabilities. Ford said Nirenberg’s technology will impart “human-like intelligence to the machine-learning modules of its autonomous-vehicle virtual-driver system.”

Ford has acquired SAIPS, another machine-vision and -learning specialist based in Israel and also previously announced an investment in Civil Maps, a Berkley, CA- based developer of high-resolution 3D maps.

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