Ford's Big Plans For An Autonomous Ride-Sharing Service

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It's ride-sharing, without the driver. Ford announced its plans today to have a fleet of fully autonomous cars in commercial operation in 2021. And its serious about it.

Ford is enhancing its autonomous vehicle development by investing in four start-ups, doubling its Silicon Valley team and more than doubling its Palo Alto campus.

"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 Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO. "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."

Autonomous vehicles in 2021 are part of "Ford Smart Mobility", the company's plan to be a leader in autonomous vehicles, as well as in connectivity, mobility, the customer experience, and data and analytics.

Ford claims it will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet to be "the largest test fleet of any automaker" — bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans on the roads in California, Arizona and Michigan, with plans to triple it again next year. Ford was the first automaker to begin testing its vehicles at Mcity, University of Michigan's simulated urban environment, the first automaker to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in the snow and the first automaker to test its autonomous research vehicles at night, in complete darkness, as part of LiDAR sensor development.

Ford is also expanding its Silicon Valley operations, creating a dedicated campus in Palo Alto. Adding two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space adjacent to the current Research and Innovation Center, Ford says the expanded campus grows the company’s local footprint and supports plans to double the size of the Palo Alto team by the end of 2017.

"Our presence in Silicon Valley has been integral to accelerating our learning and deliverables driving Ford Smart Mobility," said Ken Washington, Ford vice president, Research and Advanced Engineering. "Our goal was to become a member of the community. Today, we are actively working with more than 40 startups,and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of technologies and services."

Ford has invested in Velodyne, with which it has been working with for 10 years and specialises in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors. The aim is to quickly mass-produce a more affordable automotive LiDAR sensor.

Ford has acquired the computer vision and machine learning company SAIPS "to further strengthen its expertise in artificial intelligence and enhance computer vision". SAIPS has developed algorithmic solutions in image and video processing, deep learning, signal processing and classification. This will all be used to help the vehicles learn and adapt to the surroundings of their environment, Ford says.

Nirenberg Neuroscience has also been brought on board for the plan, signing an exclusive licensing agreement with Ford. The machine vision company was founded by neuroscientist Dr Sheila Nirenberg, who cracked the neural code the eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain.

This has led to a powerful machine vision platform for performing navigation, object recognition, facial recognition and other functions, with many potential applications. For example, it is already being applied by Dr Nirenberg to develop a device for restoring sight to patients with degenerative diseases of the retina. Ford says its partnership with Nirenberg Neuroscience will "help bring human like intelligence to the machine learning modules of its autonomous vehicle virtual driver system."

Civil Maps is the fourth start-up to join the Ford family for this project, and will work on developing high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities. "Civil Maps has pioneered an innovative 3D mapping technique that is scalable and more efficient than existing processes," Ford said in a statemet. "This provides Ford another way to develop high-resolution 3D maps of autonomous vehicle environments."

Ford have been working on autonomous vehicle research and development for over a decade now, with the company's first fully autonomous vehicle to be a Society of Automotive Engineers-rated level 4-capable vehicle without a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals. It is being specifically designed for ride sharing, and Ford believes it has an advantage over competitors.

"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 around the world," said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development, and chief technical officer.

Since the new Ford Research and Innovation Center Palo Alto opened in January 2015, the facility has rapidly grown to be one of the largest automotive manufacturer research centers in the region. Today, it is home to more than 130 researchers, engineers and scientists, who are increasing Ford's collaboration with the Silicon Valley ecosystem. Research and Innovation Center Palo Alto's multi-disciplinary research and innovation is the newest of nearly a dozen of Ford's global research, innovation, IT and engineering centers.

The expanded Palo Alto campus opens in mid-2017.

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