The ultimate self-driving car – where it doesn’t matter whether the person at the wheel is awake or asleep – is every automaker’s dream and every tech major’s goal at the moment. it now appears that Ford is skipping semi-autonomous cars (Level 3) and going straight to fully-autonomous (Level 4) self-driving technology for its future automobiles.
In an article that appeared on Automotive News, Ford’s product development chief Raj Nair reportedly said that Ford’s engineers were lulled by the smooth ride and struggled to maintain “situational awareness”.
That was interpreted to mean they dozed off during self-driving tests. However, Ford made an official statement following that:
“Reports that Ford engineers were falling asleep while testing autonomous vehicles are inaccurate. We believe that high levels of automation without full autonomy capability could provide a false sense of security, and that this presents a challenge for the driver to regain full awareness and control of the vehicle if a situation arises where the technology cannot function. That is why we’re currently pursuing SAE Level 4 autonomous capability that will take the driver completely out of the driving process in defined areas.”
It’s clear that Ford recognizes the dangers of Level 3 autonomy, which requires that a driver be present at all times, to take over when necessary. Think about it. If you were driving on an interstate highway for five hours straight, do you think you can remain “situationally aware” for that entire five hours?
Possibly not, which could be what prompted Waymo CEO John Krafcik to say:
“Level 3 may turn out to be a myth. Perhaps it’s just not worth doing.”
Ford is now skipping Level 3 and going straight to Level 4, which mean full autonomy and no driver required. That’s everyone’s goal at this point. Some just prefer to roll it out to the public as they test and certify each of the myriad parts of what makes an autonomous car…well, autonomous. Like Tesla’s Autopilot, for example.
At this point, we need to keep in mind that Ford has merely pushed its ‘go live’ date back by a significant amount of time with this decision. The company, as far as we know, is still very committed to making true autonomous driving a reality. They’ve invested heavily in the space, and are actively testing various technologies, terrain types, weather conditions and other variables so they can maintain and strengthen their leadership in the self-driving vehicles space.
According to Ford President and CEO Mark Fields:
“As Ford expands to be an auto and a mobility company, we believe that investing in Argo AI will create significant value for our shareholders by strengthening Ford’s leadership in bringing self-driving vehicles to market in the near term and by creating technology that could be licensed to others in the future.”
2021 is Ford’s self-designated target to achieve fully autonomous technology. Someone else might get there before them. But at least we know Ford’s got a solid five-year roadmap to get there even if it doesn’t guarantee them market leadership position.
The fight now is not to get the first self-driving car on the road: it is to get the first 100% reliable, fully autonomous technology on the road. The emphasis is very strongly on the technology, since it will have many forms that suit different needs.
Automakers like Ford and GM may have a slight edge over tech companies like Uber, but the potential for this tech is so massive ($42 billion by 2025, according to Boston Consulting Group in a report carried by Bloomberg) that every deep-pocketed player in this game will be fighting to form partnerships with the company that has the best technology – no matter whether that company’s an auto manufacturer, a cab company or a software maker.
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