Ford Motor Company has announced its plans to build a fleet of fully automated driverless vehicles for commercial ride-sharing by 2021, according to Reuters.
The company said it was increasing its investments in technology firms and tripling its investment in semi-autonomous systems, which would entail doubling the size of its Palo Alto research team while expanding its campus in Silicon Valley.
Ford made no mention of Apple or Google in its announcement, suggesting it sees itself competing against other tech companies who have their own car plans, rather than teaming up with them.
Ken Washington, Ford's vice president of research, told Reuters it was important to signal that Ford intends to win in this space. "We're saying to partners, we are the winning partner. It's not a hollow promise, it's a real intent," Washington said.
"Launching a self-driving car first for ride-sharing is a better way to reach the mass market and make the cars more affordable," said Ford Chief Technical Officer Raj Nair. The company is unlikely to offer a similar driverless car without steering wheel or pedals to consumers until 2025 or later, explained Nair.
Ford said it would invest in "Level 4" autonomy, referring to standards set by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). The levels represent the degree of autonomous sophistication, with Level 4 being "high automation", meaning the car is able to drive unmonitored in a specific use case - a city area, in Ford's vision, for instance.
Nair said the company wasn't willing to let drivers take control from a level two or three vehicle at a moment’s notice, citing safety concerns. "We don't yet know how to manage hand over back to the driver and have him engage and have him situationally aware, and be able to do that in a safe aware manner," he said, without mentioning Tesla's recent troubles.
The death of a Tesla driver in May who was using the company's "Autopilot" system but had his hands off the wheel has highlighted the confusion over drivers' responsibilities in a semi-autonomous car. Just yesterday, Tesla went so far as to remove the word "autopilot" from its China website after a driver in Beijing who crashed while the mode was active complained that the company had misled them about its capability.
"We abandoned the stepping-stone approach," added Ford chief executive Mark Fields, who believed there are too many risks involved in the safe "hand-over" of driving responsibility between car and driver.
Several sources indicate Apple is exploring various levels of autonomy in its much rumored car project, and has already met with California DMV officials regarding self-driving laws within the state.
The company's so-called Apple Car, codenamed "Project Titan" internally, is reportedly being headed up by former longtime executive Bob Mansfield, who last served as Senior Vice President of Technologies at the company. Last month it was reported that Apple's rumored 2020 target for launching the electric vehicle may have slipped to 2021.