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Ford Going Driverless: The Road to the Future?

Ford fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid research vehicle on streets of Dearborn, MI. Ford has been researching autonomous vehicles for more than a decade and currently tests fully autonomous vehicles in Michigan, Arizona and California, and will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet this year to have the largest of any automaker.

Most of us are comfortable with the idea of getting into a cab or limousine and letting the driver do the work of getting us to our destination. But if Ford Motor Co. has its way, there may soon be no driver up front.

Most major automakers — and a number of automotive start-ups — are racing to develop the first hands-free vehicles. Nissan, for one, hopes to have a fully autonomous car in production by 2020. But Ford says it will go a step beyond. It has announced plans to eliminate the driver entirely when it launches a new line of high-tech products in 2021.

President and CEO of Ford Motor Company Mark Fields speaks with reporters during the media preview of the 2016 New York International Auto Show in Manhattan, New York
President and CEO of Ford Motor Company Mark Fields speaks with reporters during the media preview of the 2016 New York International Auto Show in Manhattan, New York March 23, 2016. REUTERS/Eduardo Munoz - RTSBY7L

"We believe autonomous vehicles, especially with the automation of the driver, will be a significant change, perhaps as significant as the moving assembly line,' said Raj Nair, Ford's director of global product planning.

Ford's previous autonomous vehicle strategy has mirrored the broader industry approach: roll out a series of ever more sophisticated "driver assistance" systems until the technology permits drivers to completely take their hands off the wheel for extended periods of time. Until now, it was generally thought that fully driverless vehicles wouldn't be ready for at least another decade, possibly not until sometime around 2030 or beyond.

But Ford shifted gears because, "We don't think the path to true autonomy is through a step-by-step, incremental process," Nair said during a telephone interview.

There are several reasons why it has grown wary of that approach. There's the recent Florida crash of a Tesla Model S running in semi-autonomous Autopilot mode. Driver Joshua Brown, a 40-year-old former Navy SEAL, was killed when his car ran into a truck it somehow failed to recognize. Brown may have been distracted, watching a video, according to some reports, and unable to regain control.

Read More: Google's Self-Driving Car Guru Announces He's Leaving

There are other examples in the highly automated airline industry. In 2009, an Air France jetliner crashed into the ocean off Brazil when the crew failed to realize the autopilot system had malfunctioned. A Korean Air crash in San Francisco, two years ago, occurred when its autopilot system was inadvertently deactivated - and despite have a cockpit full of veteran pilots.

A number of studies have questioned whether humans can stay focused enough to take control in an emergency, should a vehicle's autonomous control system fail. "You lose driver awareness. You lose the ability for a human to respond in a timely manner," said Nair.

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Not everyone is convinced the Ford strategy will work. Executives with several other makers, declining to publicly criticize a competitor, questioned whether the necessary hardware and software to go completely driverless will be ready within five years. But they also acknowledged the challenge of keeping human "operators" at the ready.

General Motors, for example, will use retina tracking with the semi-autonomous Super Cruise system it will launch next year, shutting the system down if the driver is distracted or drowsy.

Read More: Americans Want Tech Firms, Not Automakers, to Steer Self-Driving Cars

There's no question the Ford technology will be complex. It will utilize not only a camera and radar but a sophisticated, 3D system called LIDAR, short for light detection and ranging sensors, to provide autonomous vehicles a high-definition view of the world. There will also be a digital, 3D map offering a far more detailed view than the satellite navigation systems routinely found in today's new cars.

In technical terms, this is a "mediated/direct perception system." That's a fancy way of saying Ford's driverless vehicles will have every road mapped down to signposts and potholes. But that data will be constantly compared to the real-time images gathered by the vehicle's LIDAR, radar and cameras so it can monitor traffic and spot temporary obstacles, such as construction barrels.

Another shift in Ford's strategy will have the maker initially focusing on car-sharing services, such as Uber and Lyft, as well as package delivery services, rather than the retail automotive market. That should make Travis Kalanick happy. The CEO of Uber has set a goal of switching to driverless vehicles and has even launched a research center in Pittsburgh.

Nair declined to say if Ford is discussing its driverless vehicle plans with Uber or other potential fleet customers. But the appeal should be strong.

While the Ford exec acknowledged there will be a steep premium for a driverless vehicle, "if you look at the ride hailing service business structure, the highest cost is the driver. So," added Nair, "it makes a lot of business sense if you can automate (out) the driver."

Read More: U.S. Opens Investigation Into Tesla After Fatal Crash in 'Autopilot' Mode

Some studies, from firms like Britain's Juniper Research and the Boston Consulting Group, have estimated that with a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles, the Ubers and Lyfts of the world will be able to offer on-demand rides for less than what it costs to own and operate a personal automobile.

The potential downside is that this could lead many motorists to either abandon, or at least reduce the size of, the household vehicle fleet. But Nair said Ford is confident there will still be a strong vehicle market if you factor in those ride-sharing fleets.

Ford's announcement is certain to generate controversy. Indeed, there's already been a bit of a backlash in the wake of the fatal Tesla crash and a series of less serious collisions involving autonomous prototypes operated by tech giant Google. Both California's Consumer Watchdog and influential Consumer Reports have urged the auto industry and regulators to slow the rush to develop autonomous vehicles.

But U.S. Department of Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx has become a prime advocate for the technology, as has National Highway Traffic Safety Administration chief Mark Rosekind, who contends self-driving vehicles could eventually eliminate vehicle deaths entirely. The NHTSA plans to release the first nationwide guidelines on the technology by the end of the summer.