Mass-market driverless cars 'by 2021'

Ford CEO unveils unprecedented plan to produce such cars for ride-hailing service

DETROIT • In the race to develop driverless cars, several automakers and technology companies are already testing vehicles that pilot themselves on public roads. Others have outlined plans to expand their development fleets over the next few years. But few have gone so far as to give a definitive date for the commercial debut of these cars of the future.

Now Ford has done just that.

The carmaker's chief executive Mark Fields said on Tuesday that Ford planned to mass-produce driverless cars and have them in commercial operation in a ride-hailing service by 2021.

He said that the vehicles Ford envisioned would be radically different from those on US roads now.

"That means there's going to be no steering wheel. There's going to be no gas pedal. There's going to be no brake pedal," he said. "If someone had told you 10 years ago, or even five years ago, that the CEO of a major automaker American car company is going to be announcing the mass production of fully autonomous vehicles, they would have been called crazy or nuts or both."

Ford also said it had acquired an Israeli start-up, Saips, that specialises in computer vision, a crucial technology for self-driving cars.

The automaker also announced investments in three other companies involved in major technologies for driverless vehicles. One of them was a US$75 million (S$100.6 million) stake in Velodyne, which makes sensors that use lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams. Chinese Internet company Baidu said it was making a comparable investment in Velodyne.

Ford also said it had made investments in Nirenberg Neuroscience, which is also developing machine vision technology, and Civil Maps, a start-up that is developing 3D digital maps for use by automated vehicles.

For several years, automakers have understood that their industry is being reshaped by the use of advanced computer chips, software and sensors to develop cars designed to drive themselves. Tech companies Google and Apple have emerged as potential future competitors, while Tesla has already proved a rival to luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz with driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.

More recently, ride-sharing service providers like Uber have raised the competitive concerns of the conventional auto industry. The ride-hailing services aim to operate driverless cars, making it easier for people to get around without owning a car or having a driver's licence.

A Barclays analyst Brian Johnson recently predicted that once autonomous vehicles are in widespread use, car sales could fall as much as 40 per cent as people rely on such services for transportation and choose not to own cars.

BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among the carmakers that have seized upon the concept of "transportation as a service", as it is called, by starting ride-sharing services of their own. And General Motors has teamed up with, and bought a stake in, Lyft, the main rival of Uber.

Even some auto suppliers are focusing on ride-hailing services and driverless cars.

In Singapore the Land Transport Authority inked deals with UK-based Delphi Automotive Systems and local start-up nuTonomy on Aug 1 to develop self-driving vehicle ride services.

NEW YORK TIMES

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on August 18, 2016, with the headline 'Mass-market driverless cars 'by 2021''. Print Edition | Subscribe