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Ford promises to mass-produce an autonomous car by 2021

The world’s first high-volume, fully autonomous vehicle will operate in a ride-hailing or sharing service by 2021, says Ford

Car manufacturer Ford has unveiled ambitious plans to mass-produce a largely autonomous vehicle for commercial operation in a ride-hailing or ride-sharing service by 2021.

Ford, which pioneered industrial assembly line techniques in the manufacture of its famous Model T in the early years of the 20th century, is investing in and collaborating with a number of startups alongside China’s Baidu, and will double the number of people working at its Silicon Valley campus in Palo Alto, California.

The advance of autonomous vehicles into the mainstream hit a stumbling block in recent months, after Tesla’s Autopilot feature – a beta system designed to control vehicles in a limited way in motorway driving conditions – was implicated in a series of crashes, one of them fatal.

However, Ford still has designs on being a market leader in autonomous vehicles through its Smart Mobility programme that has already seen it embrace connectivity, mobility and data analytics features in its vehicles.

“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,” said Ford president and CEO Mark Fields.

“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.”

The planned vehicle will hold a Level 4 Society of Automotive Engineers (SEA) autonomous vehicle rating. According to the SAE’s rating scheme, the vehicle will have full control over execution of steering and acceleration, monitoring of its driving environment and fallback performance of dynamic driving tasks.

SAE Level 4 is classed as high automation, but not full automation, because the vehicle will be designed for use by commercial services in urban areas and will therefore not be capable of operating in all conditions.

However, this still means that the vehicle will have no steering wheel, accelerator or brake pedals, so Ford believes the user experience will be largely indistinguishable from full SAE Level 5 autonomy.

Startups under the bonnet

Ford’s investment in new technology and startups to support its planned autonomous taxi will centre on four key investments and collaborations to expand its existing expertise in advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, light detection and ranging (LiDAR), and radar and camera sensors.

The first major investment will be in Velodyne, a Silicon Valley-based LiDAR specialist that Ford has worked with for 10 years, which will lead work on a mass-produced, affordable LiDAR sensor for the automotive sector.

Ford has also acquired Israeli computer vision and machine learning company Saips to bolster its expertise in artificial intelligence (AI) and computer vision. Saips’ algorithmic products in image and video processing, deep learning, signal processing and classification will help the vehicle learn and adapt to its surroundings.

The carmaker is investing in Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine vision specialist founded by neuroscientist Sheila Nirenberg, who pioneered work on the neural code used by the eyes to transmit visual information to the brain.

Read more about autonomous vehicles

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As a result, Nirenberg has produced a powerful machine vision platform – that is currently being used to treat degenerative eye diseases – capable of navigating, object and facial recognition, and a number of other functions. Ford hopes to apply this technology to give its vehicle’s machine learning modules “human-like” intelligence.

Finally, Ford is ploughing cash into Berkeley, California-based Civil Maps to develop high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. Civil Maps claims to have developed a 3D mapping technique that is more scalable and efficient than existing technology, giving Ford another way to develop maps of autonomous vehicle environments.

“Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years,” said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice-president of global product development and chief technical officer.

“We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people worldwide.”

Read more on Internet of Things (IoT)