Here's how Ford's self-driving cars will work

Ford has big plans to get into self-driving cars.

On Tuesday, the automaker announced that it aims to roll out an autonomous taxi fleet in at least one city in 2021. Ford said its driverless cars will have level 4 autonomy, meaning they will not have a steering wheel, gas or brake pedals.

While this sounds impressive, it should be noted that Ford’s futuristic cars will still have some significant limitations, at least in the beginning.

For example, the cars will only be able to operate in geofenced areas within cities, meaning the company will set defined physical parameters that have previously been mapped by the company’s driverless test fleet.

What’s more, Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of advanced research and engineering, told Business Insider that the company will also only provide the service in an area where its sensors can “operate at their optimum performance.” This means that it will not operate in certain weather conditions or in geographical locations that might interfere with how sensors collect data.

Ford FusionFordFord fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid research vehicle on streets of Dearborn, MI.

Ford’s strategy doesn’t differ terribly from what other automakers are doing when it comes to self-driving cars. For example, Volvo plans to roll out its self-driving system called Intellisafe Autopilot in 2020 and it will also only allow its cars to enter self-driving mode on certain routes.

Ford’s self-driving fleet is a good reminder that we are still a ways off from autonomous vehicles taking us wherever we want.

The dream, of course, is to open an app, request a car, and get where you want to go in a car with no driver. That reality is still a ways off because the technology is just not there yet.

Ford hasn’t said what city it will launch in first, nor has it determined how it plans to enable people to request a car, but Washington said that it’s in talks with a number of companies about potential partnerships.

“We are working through those options as we speak. Like others, we are talking to everybody and everybody is talking to us… But we haven’t selected and finalised how we will bring this service to the public,” Washington said. “We are developing technology across that full spectrum of needs to make this a reality, we have that possibility of doing it organically ourselves, but we are open to partnering if it makes sense.”

While Ford will launch its first commercial self-driving car in a ride-sharing fleet, it’s ambitions go beyond just offering the technology in a service setting.

Washington said that longterm, Ford “absolutely” will begin to sell autonomous vehicles to consumers, however, he noted that for now it’s important for Ford to stay focused on the ride-sharing and ride-hailing business to bring mobility to the masses.

Washington likened Ford’s push into autonomous cars to Henry Ford’s introduction of the assembly line in auto manufacturing.

“That brought mobility to the masses, it literally put the world on wheels. Prior to that cars were only available to the rich who could afford these custom coaches,” Washington said.

“Today, we are seeing something very similar where people have mobility needs and they can’t afford taxis or can’t afford ride services because they are quite expensive in terms of dollars per mile,” Washington said. “Autonomy is going to transition that to be more affordable and more accessible… and we are really excited what that means for society in terms of enabling people to move and making a better world.”

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