What Ford’s New Guy Said about the Future of Self-Driving Cars

by Wolf Richter, Wolf Street:

You get to own and steer a car for a while longer, if you insist.

Ford Motor Co.’s new CEO, Jim Hackett, is approaching the end of his self-imposed 100-day review of the company’s operations. And self-driving cars is the big thing.

He took over after Mark Fields was sacked on around May 21 for a lack of strategy, a public tiff with the Trump administration, declining US sales and market share, production cuts, layoffs, and most unforgivably, the share price.

The stock sagged nearly 40% from the day Fields had taken over three years earlier until he got fired. Since then, shares have edged down further, closing at $10.64 on Thursday, the lowest since November 2012.

So for the new guy, there are a lot of things to review in his first 100 days. And on Thursday, at Ford’s “City of Tomorrow Symposium” in San Francisco – dedicated to “reflecting on the future of cities and urban mobility” – he reflected on the future of self-driving cars.

He’d been elevated from Ford’s “Smart Mobility” unit that works on autonomous vehicles. This move shows that AVs are a priority for Ford. But it is woefully behind Alphabet’s Waymo, according to data collected by the California DMV and reported in May for the year that ended on November 30, 2016.

The report shows how many total miles the AVs of various companies drove on public roads in California over the 12-month period without human intervention, and how many miles on average they could drive before human intervention occurred (the “disengagement”). Waymo’s vehicles drove on average 5,127 miles per disengagement; Ford’s vehicles, 196 miles:

  1. Waymo: 635,867 miles driven, 5,127 miles/disengagement
  2. GM/Cruise: 9,668 miles driven, 34 miles/disengagement
  3. Nissan: 4,099 miles driven, 28 miles/disengagement
  4. Bosch: 983 miles driven, 0.6 miles/disengagement
  5. Mercedes: 673 miles driven, 2 miles/disengagement
  6. BMW: 638 miles driven, 638 miles/disengagement
  7. Ford: 590 miles driven, 196 miles/disengagement
  8. Tesla: 550 miles driven, 3 miles/disengagement

So Hackett has his hands full. And in an interview at the symposium, he told the Wall Street Journal that Ford is rethinking how people will want to use self-driving technology.

Under Fields, the goal had been to have a fully autonomous vehicle without steering wheel or pedals on the market by 2021, to be used by ride-hailing companies – the driver-less Ubers. For Hackett, that schedule is still intact, but Ford is reviewing how to deploy the technology. And that might be different than envisioned before.

“The biggest leap is the nature of the human interpretation of using it,” he told The Journal. “If you think we’re going to take the [autonomous vehicle] and just replace the station wagon, I don’t believe that’s what’s going to happen. The AV will replace and do something that the station wagon can’t do – not just drive itself – but other things.”

He used the example of how computing technology took surprising turns, to where you can watch HBO on a smartphone.

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