Ford made a big move on Tuesday when it announced that it intends to unleash a fully autonomous vehicle for urban use by 2021.
The company’s five-year-plan is truly a great leap forward for the automaker — cars that completely drive themselves, with no flesh-and-blood engagement whatsoever, have conventionally been regarded as a long way off.
Sure, Google has its fleet of podmobiles on the road, but major car companies have been aiming for a more incremental approach, adding features and marching through the levels of autonomy.
The announcement was made in Silicon Valley by Ford CEO Mark Fields and couched in the transformational language that he has brought to the automaker — he is presenting Ford as a mobility company first and foremost. Ford’s global product head, Raj Nair, was also there, and he was tasked with delivering the good/bad news: Ford is going all in with a driverless solution because it couldn’t figure out how to keep the driver safely in the picture.
We now have a clear bet being placed by the traditional auto industry, when it comes to autonomy. Tesla’s incremental approach, with self-driving features added gradually by software and hardware updates, won’t cut it. Ford and General Motors, the latter with its Lyft partnership and its acquisition of Cruise Automation (a self-driving startup), are going to use their manufacturing muscle to create big fleets of autonomous vehicles that will roam city streets.
This is essentially the Google Car future. And boy, is it ever boring.
The automaker that gave us the mighty Mustang and the Le Mans-winning Ford GT supercar — machines that tap directly into humanity’s love of hot rides that decidedly do not drive themselves — is now styling itself as a future manager of an autonomous taxi service.
Obviously, this is an excellent business opportunity, so it makes sense for Ford to go there. At the moment, Detroit car makers are raking in so much money amid a truck-and-SUV sales boom in the US that they have the resources to protect themselves again what they consider to be impending existential threats to their livelihood.
But begun it has, the end of the automobile as a symbol of freedom and passionate driving enjoyment. Intellectually, we knew this moment was coming. But the advent of Uber has accelerated the transition. At more than a $60-billion valuation, Uber has in a few short years surpassed the individual market caps of both Ford and GM, both companies over a century old.
Weirdly, the big traditional car makers are ideally situated to capture a lot of profit form the massive shift. If driverless fleets will conquer the worlds cities, then the guys who are in the best place to create those fleets aren’t Uber, Lyft, or Tesla — they’re the world’s major automakers, who already build millions of basic vehicles every year that go straight into fleet use, with governments, institutions, and rental-car agencies.
Ford’s move shows how flexible it has become since the financial crisis, when it was nearly wiped out financially alongside GM and Chrysler. But it also shows how much better Ford has become at embracing a future in which cars are designed to deliver no excitement whatsoever.