By Tess Bennett

Lives Are Becoming More Digital, And Driving Needs To Safely Reflect This: Ford

Ford is very serious about putting a fully autonomous vehicle on the road, but admits it will be quite some time before you can walk into a dealership and buy one. In the meantime, the auto giant is reevaluating its business model.

“The holy grail, which Ford and others have laid out a vision for, is fully autonomous cars,” Wes Sherwood, head of communications at Ford Australia, told Which-50.

Due in 2021, Ford’s first fully autonomous car will only be used for limited applications such as taxi or ride-hailing services, and it will only operate in defined areas that the car can navigate.

“It is certainly going to be some time beyond that before you can rock up to your dealership, order your autonomous car, and have it drive you wherever you want to go,” Sherwood said.

“With autonomous vehicles we are not interested in the big race to see which one can be on the road first at whatever cost. We are looking at doing it a way that’s meaningful for millions of people.”

The promises behind fully autonomous cars — fewer road fatalities, less congestion and time saved commuting — have car makers excited. However, before a full suite of autonomous vehicles hits the road, car makers are grappling with safety concerns caused by distracted drivers.

“We are starting to see the road toll go up again, after many years of decline as cars got safer, and safety experts are basically saying it’s because people are more distracted — fiddling around with their digital devices in the car,” Sherwood said.

“Our lives aren’t going to get any less digital — they are going to get more digital. As we move towards autonomous cars, there is going to be a long period in between where we have to recognise we have an opportunity to help people stay connected but in a safer way.”

For example, Ford’s Sync technology aims to discourage people from picking up their phone in the car in favour of voice control. The company recently announced an integration between its vehicles and Amazon’s virtual assistant, Alexa, to allow drivers to use voice commands to perform various tasks.

“What we see as a real priority is making our cars smart enough to stay connected to drivers’ digital lives, but do it in a safer way through voice control as opposed to them manually using their handheld devices.”

Over the past five to ten years, driver-assist technologies such as lane centring and automatic braking systems have become more common. Ford has been at the forefront of putting them in mainstream vehicles, Sherwood said.

“With autonomous vehicles we are not interested in the big race to see which one can be on the road first at whatever cost. We are looking at doing it a way that’s meaningful for millions of people,” he said.

“Ford has always been about innovations for millions of people — all the way back to the days of Henry Ford. So that’s really what our focus is on.”

Focus on mobility

Ford doesn’t just want to build an autonomous car. The company wants to understand how consumers move around cities so it can develop new business models.

To help Ford expand into both an auto and a mobility company, it has formed the Smart Mobility Group to develop and invest in mobility solutions that address consumers’ transportation needs.

“We recognise that once you have autonomous cars and once you have overwhelming congestion, the need for more cars probably diminishes and might start reversing. So we may not sell one more car in the future but we may sell a smart shuttle system,” Sherwood said.

Following the acquisition of shuttle company Chariot, Ford is currently testing a shuttle service designed to move consumers from a central tram or bus stop to their final destination in San Francisco.

A move into transport services also represents a huge market for Ford — its traditional automobile business is approximately a $US2.5 trillion business annually, while the wider transportation services industry (shuttles, taxis, ride-hailing) is worth $US5.5 trillion annually.

“If we can come in and start getting some of that business it’s a profound change to our business model,” Sherwood said.

“It’s really the most dynamic period of change in the auto industry since Henry Ford made cars available for the masses more than 100 years ago. It’s a period of disruption and we’ve decided at Ford that we are going to invest significantly in disrupting — not only ourselves but the industry —before waiting for others to do it for us.”