Ford Inks Tech Deals, Promises Self-Driving Car by 2021

DETROIT (Detroit Free Press/TNS) -

In an attempt to position itself at the forefront of self-driving car development, Ford on Tuesday announced a series of deals with Silicon Valley tech companies and vowed to develop a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021.

The automaker, headquartered outside Detroit, also said it plans to more than double its headcount in Palo Alto, where it currently employs 130 researchers, engineers and scientists, by the end of next year.

Taken together, the numerous announcements amount to Ford planting a major flag in the ground in the race toward autonomous vehicles, which Ford CEO Mark Fields said he believes could revolutionize the industry over the next decade.

“We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” Fields said in a statement. “We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people — not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

The deals Ford announced — several investments and an acquisition — also further illustrate a growing spirit of collaboration between Detroit automakers and the tech industry.

All three Detroit automakers — General Motors, Fiat Chrysler Automobiles and Ford — have inked high-profile deals with Silicon Valley-based companies this year as the auto industry barrels toward cars that can talk to each other, talk to other transportation systems and, eventually, will be able to drive themselves with little assistance.

Ford’s said its first fully autonomous vehicle will be made without a steering wheel and without gas and brake pedals. The vehicle, which will be available in high volumes, is being specifically designed for ride-hailing services such as Uber and Lyft, Ford said.

The automaker has been testing and developing self-driving cars for 10 years, said Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of global product development.

“We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles,” Nair said.

To help it develop the technology necessary to engineer such cars, Ford said Tuesday it has:

—Invested $75 million in Velodyne, a developer and manufacturer of laser radar. Laser radar systems have sensors that can detect objects and help cars navigate.

—Acquired SAIPS, an Israel-based computer vision and machine learning company. SAIPS has developed imaging and video processing software that learns and improves over time.

—An exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience, a machine vision company with software that mimics human intelligence.

—Invested in Civil Maps, a Berkeley, Calif.-based company that has developed high-resolution, three-dimensional mapping capabilities.

In order to work with those and other companies, Ford plans to rapidly expand its presence in Palo Alto, it said.

Ford first opened its Research and Innovation Center there in January 2015, where it occupies one 30,000-square-foot building. Now, it plans to add two new 75,000 square-foot buildings and lab space that will open next year.

“Our goal was to become a member of the community,” said Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering said in a statement. “Today, we are actively working with more than 40 startups, and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of technologies and services.”