Ford's chief engineer for driverless cars reveals 3 big issues holding back the technology

Ford driverless carFordA Ford self-driving car.

Jackie DiMarco, Ford’s chief autonomous vehicles engineer, has been at Ford for 21 years.

Before switching her focus to Ford’s self-driving-car ambitions, DiMarco oversaw several core projects at the company. Most notably, she was behind the launch of the six-cylinder “EcoBoost” turbocharged engine in the F-150. She’s also spent time as a plant vehicle team manager for Mustang.

But now DiMarco, like the rest of the auto industry, is entering an entirely new chapter for mobility.

“I think it [the auto industry] had this reputation of an antiquated industry of nuts and bolts and greasy bits,” DiMarco told Business Insider. “It’s actually so refreshing now that we are part of the mobility solution. We’re not just about selling cars and trucks.”

But DiMarco said Ford and other automakers still must overcome three major hurdles before they can truly deliver autonomous vehicles to the masses.

Consumer adoption

Getting people to trust self-driving cars is one issue that Ford and other automakers are already having to face.

“When you talk to people, some are super excited and want to jump into their first AV [autonomous vehicle] today and some are not as excited and not as trusting yet,” DiMarco said.

Automotive research company Kelley Blue Book commissioned a 2016 study that found Americans are most comfortable with vehicles on the road today and believe they are significantly safer in current models than those with higher levels of autonomy.

The study, conducted by market research firm Vital Findings, surveyed 2,264 individuals ranging in ages 12 to 64. It found that 64% of people prefer to have full control of the vehicle at all times. Additionally, 56% of people surveyed said they would prefer to use ride-hailing services with a human driver.

That could pose issues for Ford, which plans to release Level 4 self-driving cars without any driver controls in a commercial setting, like for ride-hailing or car-sharing, by 2021. (Level 4 means the car is fully self-driving in certain geographic regions.)

Alphabet’s self-driving-car company Waymo was previously pursuing Level 4 self-driving cars without driver controls, but is now keeping them in future vehicles. Waymo said it changed its strategy because the regulatory environment has not cleared a path for cars without a steering wheel or pedals.

That means Ford is the biggest company remaining that’s committed to ditching driver controls.

“The challenge we have is you’re providing a high level of automation, but still requiring the driver to have a high level of situational awareness, and that’s problematic,” DiMarco said. “You can get very relaxed in that situation.”

High costs

Ford LiDARScreenshot via YouTubeFord’s Velodyne lidar system.

Until prices for self-driving tech begin to fall, it will be difficult for the vehicles to really go mainstream.

For example, lidar is a key component of self-driving cars that also happens to be the most expensive. A lidar sensor shoots out lasers to create a high-resolution map of the car’s surroundings.

A single, top-of-the-line radar cost $US75,000 just two years ago. Prices are already starting to fall — Waymo claims it slashed the price of its in-house lidar system by 90% to around $US7,500 per sensor. Lidar company Velodyne has created less-expensive versions of its systems as well.

Ford and Baidu invested $US150 million in Velodyne last August.

But DiMarco said we are still ways off from component prices falling to where they need to be.

“The business case to put autonomous vehicles into a commercial application is pretty significant so you can afford to spend more on the vehicle when you’re eliminating the need for the labour,” she said. “So we have room for additional costs but not at today’s costs.”

“We have research grade equipment that’s in our vehicles and we need to get off of research grade and into automotive grade,” DiMarco continued.

DiMarco said scaling the technology will be key to hitting the price point necessary to roll out self-driving cars.

The regulatory environment

DiMarco said the biggest hurdle currently facing the auto industry is the regulatory environment.

The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration released guidelines for self-driving vehicles in September that asks states to develop uniform policies for self-driving cars to avoid disparate state-by-state regulations.

But the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets, which represents companies like Ford, Waymo, and Uber, is pushing for the federal government to release a comprehensive set of regulations.

US Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao is currently reviewing the guidelines that were released under the Obama administration after receiving pushback from automakers.

“The federal regulations are important because we don’t want to adopt different solutions state-by-state,” DiMarco said. “It makes it harder for us to deliver a product if every state has unique regulations. We definitely want a federal roll-out.”

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