Weekly Brief: Ford’s Dose of Reality to Driverless Dreamers

Ford is walking back its goal to mass produce self-driving cars by 2021.

Speaking at a Detroit Economic Club event last week, Ford CEO Jim Hackett admitted that Ford had “overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles”. The carmaker still plans to produce something by 2021, although exactly what that is remains to be seen. Hackett said that the capabilities and applications of Ford’s first autonomous vehicles will be significantly cut back.

At best, we can expect a driverless vehicle that operates within a small, geographically restricted area of a city, like a bus crawling back and forth in a restricted lane at an airport. Anything more is out of the question. Hackett said: “Because the problem [of safely navigating self-driving cars through urban environments] is so complex.”

For Hackett, this must have felt like eating his own shoe. Hackett was the man who led Ford to create the Ford Smart Mobility division. He’s one of the most ambitious proponents of autonomous technology in the car industry and he sees it as a key investment to help automakers keep pace as tech giants like Google, Uber and Lyft look to push into the mobility sector. Since creating its Smart Mobility division, Ford has poured more than $4Bn into connected and autonomous technology, including the $1Bn purchase of Argo AI.

Granted, much of that money hasn’t gone to waste but it’s becoming increasingly clear that the path from developing autonomous tech to actually profiting from its deployment is a long and tricky one, with lots of potential missteps waiting to ensnare companies along the way. Back in January Ford closed down its Chariot shuttle service, which it acquired for $65M in 2016 and viewed as a central component of its shift away from traditional car-making toward the new age of alternative mobility services. Now Chariot is history and we learn that the self-driving cars we’ve been promised with such confidence from Ford for several years are in limbo as well.

Expect more of the same from other carmakers as we approach their self-imposed deadlines for self-driving technology. General Motors’ Cruise has promised a US-based robo-taxi service by 2019. Given the scale of its pilot deployments to date, that seems incredibly unlikely save for a mini launch similar to what Waymo did in the Phoenix suburbs in late 2018. Honda has said it wants consumer cars that can fully drive themselves on highways by the time the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo, Japan, rolls around. Fellow Japanese carmaker Toyota has set the same goal, as has South Korea’s Hyundai. BMW says it wants “highly and fully automated driving into series production by 2021”.

All of these companies may deliver on these deadlines but, if I had to place my money, I say they end up like Ford, walking back their promises – and that’s a good thing in the end. As Hackett admitted, carmakers and tech companies alike underestimated just how complicated it would be to safely deploy autonomous vehicles. The proper decision is to error on the side of caution and to continue to pilot and improve the technology while working to develop good laws and sensible driverless standards, as BMW, Renault and Toyota are now exploring together. Our Paul Myles has more on that story here. It’s not sexy and it’s not imminent but it’s the path we need to take. So long self-driving cars, we’ll see you in the future!

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