Californians may start seeing some odd looking Ford cars on the roads early next year because the 112-year old Detroit automotive company received a permit yesterday to begin testing their autonomous Ford Fusion vehicles on the streets of Silicon Valley. The automaker’s entry into the increasingly competitive driverless car field represents another interesting move in what is fast becoming a high stakes chess match between big car manufacturers like Ford and powerful technology firms like Google in a race to capture what Mark Fields, CEO of Ford, described as “changing the way the world moves.”
Fields and a group of his top executives were in Palo Alto, California yesterday to celebrate the one year anniversary for the opening of the Ford Research and Innovation Center. The facility started with a small group of 15 employees and has now grown to over 100 researchers, engineers and scientists, many of whom have joined the automaker from Silicon Valley startups.
“We came to Silicon Valley to be part of the innovation culture here,” said Fields during his remarks yesterday.
A key part of innovative success is to overcome challenges and one of the biggest for makers of driverless cars is to find a way the vehicles can quickly recognize a pedestrian in the road and avoid running them over. Ford provided a few of their engineers to the media yesterday to demonstrate technology they are working on to solve this issue, but this clearly is still very much a work in progress.
“It turns out that pedestrian detection is a pretty hard problem,” said Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering.
Ford is apparently intent on developing a comprehensive 360-degree view for the vehicle to continually process, including not just the stray pedestrian but street signs and all other vehicles as well.
That Ford has chosen to work on developing the technology themselves is an interesting decision. Like most automakers who outsource everything from car radios to airbags, Ford could easily have found a partner technology company with plenty of robotic-oriented research.
Asked directly about this, Washington was quick to point out that Ford has been a member of the autonomous technology community “going back to the DARPA Challenge days,” a reference to the robotic prize competition sponsored by the U.S. Department of Defense that began in 2004. The challenge was to create a driverless car that could successfully navigate a 150 mile route through the Mojave Desert. None of the entrants finished the race the first year, but a quick check of the records confirms that Ford cars were entered as early as 2007.
Ford’s presence in Silicon Valley and the Innovation Center are clearly key components in the company’s strategy to become more of a technology player. Last year at CES (the Consumer Electronics Show), the automaker announced their “Smart Mobility” plan, and has since delivered new products including technology for faster 3D printing, remote parking controls, and even a smartwatch app for Android.
By obtaining a permit for their driverless cars to hit the California roads in 2016, Ford joins an increasingly crowded space that already includes Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla Motors, Honda, Nissan and the ever-present Google.
In his closing remarks yesterday afternoon, Fields spoke about embracing the culture of Silicon Valley while recognizing that the stakes are always higher for large companies like his. “Startups play checkers. Big companies like ours play chess,” said Fields. Now it remains to be seen who will be the first to claim the king on the autonomous vehicle chess board.