Ford’s Self-Driving Plan: Can It Overtake the Competition?


Oct. 23 2019, Published 4:44 p.m. ET

As auto companies are upping their electric vehicle game, they’re also upping their self-driving technology game. Multiple tech companies have jumped into the autonomous driving space due to the huge potential it offers.

However, the road to fully autonomous driving is still a few years out. In this article, we’ll discuss how Ford is working to ramp up its self-driving ambitions. First, let’s look at the overall context.

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Legacy automakers entering the self-driving space

Legacy automakers such as Ford (F) and General Motors (GM) are seeking self-driving tech to offset the weakness that seems structural in the auto industry. This tech could also drive their next leg of growth.

Ford plans to produce autonomous cars for ridesharing by 2021. GM acquired Cruise, a self-driving startup, to kickstart its autonomous driving plans.

Tech companies’ autonomous vehicle ambitions

Google (GOOG) (GOOGL) is already making inroads in the self-driving space with Waymo. This unit already provides its self-driving ride-hailing service to its members in Phoenix, Arizona. Waymo is also partnering with Lyft (LYFT) in some areas. Uber (UBER) announced in April that it was working with Volvo to build autonomous cars.

Tech giant Apple (AAPL) is also betting big in this space. According to an October 18 MacRumors report, Taiwanese firm Quanta has been supplying autonomous driving solutions to Apple. Plus, tech companies BlackBerry (BB), Qualcomm (QCOM), and Nvidia (NVDA) are actively developing autonomous technologies.

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Tesla acquired DeepScale to fast-track its self-driving vehicle program

EV pioneer Tesla (TSLA) recently acquired DeepScale, a computer vision startup, to boost its self-driving technology. Tesla CEO Elon Musk stated in April that its autonomous robotaxis would be ready next year. While investors are not committed to this timeline, there is a serious push from the company with respect to its autonomous driving ambitions.

Ford: Spending more on self-driving vehicles than planned

After lagging in the EV space, Ford looks like it wants to lead the market on the autonomous technology side. In the company’s October 21 blog post, Jim Farley, Ford’s president for new business, technology, and strategy, clarified the company’s self-driving ambitions.

Previously, the company had targeted an initial investment of $4 billion to develop self-driving technology. However, Farley noted in the blog post, “We do plan to spend more on self-driving vehicles than our original commitment of $4 billion through 2023, but we don’t believe spending is the measure that will be meaningful to our customers and the communities in which we will operate our self-driving services.”

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Plus, Farley clarified that Ford is aiming for the initial commercialization of self-driving services by 2021 and can build on its scale after the launch. He added how Ford’s self-driving ambitions are different than those of other companies: “While most others are focusing on the tech race, our team is focused on the customer.”

Key deliverables of Ford’s self-driving business

Farley identified four key deliverables to build a sustainable and scalable self-driving business:

  • Customer experience.
  • Robust self-driving system.
  • Localized and highly experienced vehicle operations.
  • A durable vehicle capable of being utilized at high rates.

The company is already receiving customer insight through its three launch markets—Miami-Dade County, Washington, DC, and Austin, Texas. In September, Ford announced that it would start mapping the streets of downtown Austin starting in November.

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Ford’s autonomous technology game

Ford is upping its autonomous driving game, even as its peers are dialing back their expectations of this technology’s successful launch. Despite the hype surrounding autonomous driving technology, analysts probably realize that the technology’s commercialization is still far off. CNBC noted that Morgan Stanley cut Waymo’s valuation by 40% because commercialization was taking longer than anticipated.

Autonomous technology’s commercialization and regulation still far away

In addition to commercialization, the regulations around this technology also need a lot of work. Companies are pushing for changes in rules regarding aspects of self-driving, such as seating positions.

According to Reuters, “Comments filed by automakers suggest it could take the agency until at least 2025 to complete a comprehensive rewrite of various safety standards.” The autonomous race between companies is only expected to heat up further during that timeframe.


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