AUSTRALIA could still be many years away from seeing the first autonomous car hit our roads, one of the world’s largest carmakers says.
Speaking at this week’s Future with Ford seminar, held to talk up the company’s plans to reinvent itself as an “automotive and mobility services provider”, Ford Australia President Graeme Whickman said he could not say when self-driving cars would arrive here.
“Obviously [Ford’s goal of having a mass production self-driving car launched by] 2021 isn’t that far away at a global level, and… a level for fully autonomous, no brake, no gas, no steering wheel,” Whickman said. “That’s our reality, that’s what our organisation is building towards investing both financial and human resources.”
Ford has announced it will have its first mass-production driverless car – one that won’t need any driver inputs – on sale by 2021 as part of a massive five-year plan to kick-start the technology. Its showcase for the technology so far has been the Ford Fusion, a vehicle sold here as the Ford Mondeo.
But Whickman said there was still “a lot of water to go under the bridge” before Ford could decide which markets – including Australia – would get fully autonomous cars, and in what timeframe.
“There are many hurdles to overcome, and they are market by market, by the way,” he said.
These include regulatory, legal and ethical hurdles – issues that will be relevant to “big Australia” rather than just Ford – and the time to start talking about how we would tackle them was now.
“So some of the main [government] stakeholders need to actually start to engage in a fruitful conversation around what would Australia look like in four, five, six, seven years as it pertains to fully autonomous vehicles, and what that does to some of the challenges and pain points that we face in Australia already,” he said.
By pain points, Whickman means factors such as the growing costs to society of congestion – both in terms of its impact on the economy and time – and the increasing number of disabled people who want to control their own movements. Ford globally believes having self-driving cars on our roads will go some way to helping with both problems.
He said the framework to allow autonomous cars to drive on our roads had to be put in place before one could even turn a wheel here.
“And that’s much bigger than Ford,” Whickman said. “It has to come at an industry level, and when I say industry I mean FCAI [car industry lobby group the Federal Chamber of Automotive Industries] type of level and the government.
“And the government, in due course, no doubt will unveil and talk about their policy position on items from electrification, obviously linked to renewable energy sources, all the way through to autonomous vehicles and the economic cost not to put that in place versus to put it in place.”
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Globally, Ford has invested heavily in acquiring self-driving car tech start-ups as it lays down plans to ramp up city-friendly car-sharing services – a perceived shift in the market as the rate of personal car ownership falls. It has even launched a trial car-share service here in Australia, allowing Ford owners to rent out their vehicles while they’re parked up at airports.
It has estimated that in five years’ time, personal car ownership will be worth about $US2.3 trillion ($A3.1 trillion) to Ford’s bottom line, while mobility services such as self-driving cars and “last-mile” solutions including self-driving buses and electric scooters could be worth as much as $5.4 trillion.