Ford has shown the development version of its first fully autonomous vehicle, set to hit the market without a steering wheel or pedals in 2021 - but you won’t be able to buy one.
Revealed at the Consumer Electronics Show (CES) in Las Vegas and based on the Ford Fusion Hybrid, the car can control all aspects of driving without human assistance. It is aimed squarely at ride-sharing companies, not traditional new car buyers.
“This will be a fleet vehicle that can be summoned with an app. Not something you can buy in a dealership,” Colm Boran, manager of Ford’s autonomous vehicle platform, told Wheels. He suggested partnerships with ride-sharing companies were already in the pipeline.
Boran confirmed Ford would jump straight from the lower-level autonomous driver assist functionality it has in mainstream products, to an SAE Level 4-capable vehicle, and that a Level 3 vehicle, which is one able to monitor the environment and drive itself but expects a human fall-back, was not planned.
“I wouldn’t quite call it dangerous, but [Level 3] has challenges with reengaging a human, and it doesn’t answer the question of bringing mobility to people who don’t have it today.”
At the moment the Fusion-based development vehicle looks relatively conventional, with the exception of distance monitors extending from the A-pillars on antennae. However, the production version may not look anything like it.
“Being a fleet vehicle and offering a service, a lot of people might look at those LiDARs on the A pillars and think it’s awful, I would never buy it – well I’m not asking you to buy it,” said Boran.
“It’s a paradigm shift for us at Ford. We put our careers together by appealing to the guy who’s going to buy the car, and suddenly that’s all changed. We have to remind ourselves, does that really matter?
“Now we’re going to design it around appealing to somebody who wants to hire a car. So does that mean we have to have a conference call system, or really high speed Wi-Fi?
“Who cares about how it looks? I think some of this stuff is going to be the market differentiator. Other companies have shown cars with seats facing each other. I can safely say our 2021 car will have all forward facing seats.”
Ford currently has 30 of these Fusion-based development vehicles in operation, and plans to have 90 of them out on the road by the end of 2017. Boran confirmed that testing of the vehicle would happen in Australia eventually.
A business that Ford invested in, called Velodyne, currently supplies sensors, though it does not make a camera with sensors integrated such as in Tesla vehicles. Boran told Wheels that a freeze on the hardware would have to happen within the next 18 months in order to meet the 2021 on sale deadline.
“We’ve been working on autonomous development for 10 years. We’re more mature than people realise. We have to use what’s available to us now.”
“My job is to make sure we design this as a platform, which means we can apply this [technology] to any vehicle we want.”