Ford says slow-and-steady will win the self-driving car race

Ford doesn’t want to be the first company to offer self-driving cars to the public; it it wants to be the brand most synonymous with the word “trust” — at least, that’s what the company says in its self-driving safety report, which it delivered to the US Department of Transportation Thursday. The 44-page document, entitled “A Matter of Trust,” outlines the technology and procedures Ford is using to safely deploy its fleet of autonomous test vehicles.

Ford’s overly cautious approach could help them win over consumers. Consumers were already skeptical about self-driving cars, but after an autonomous Uber vehicle struck and killed a 49-year-old woman in Tempe, Arizona, last March, people have been even more leery. Three-quarters of people surveyed by Pew in May said they’d prefer human drivers, even if self-driving cars were readily available; half of respondents said they’d never want a self-driving car. Before the March crash, companies were racing to get their products to market as quickly as possible. Now they are taking steps to highlight their commitment to safety before rolling out their vehicles to a skeptical public.

Ford believes that “developing self-driving vehicles is not simply about the technology  —  it is about earning the trust of our customers and of those cities and businesses that will ultimately use it,” Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, said in a letter to Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao that accompanies the report. “Safety, reliability and the experience the technology will enable are the key pillars to developing trust.”

That point is underscored in the document itself, in which Ford emphasizes its slow-and-steady approach. “We are not in a race to be first to offer self-driving vehicles to the public,” the company says. “Our focus is on doing it correctly.”

Ford is only the third company to deliver a voluntary safety report to the federal government. (The first two were Waymo and General Motors.) Under President Obama, the DOT suggested that tech companies and automakers working on self-driving cars voluntarily submit a safety checklist to the government in order to help keep tabs on this fast moving technology. That request was re-upped last year, when Chao released the Trump administration’s spin on the government’s autonomous vehicle safety guidelines.

The safety reports also signal which companies are furthest along and feel confident enough in their self-driving tests to disclose details to the public. The reports serve as a glossy marketing tool for the companies to tout their commitment to safety and transparency, but generally lack certain statistics, like fleet size, total miles driven, and disengagement rates.

There are plenty of interesting details in the report, though, like how Ford’s self-driving vehicles will handle system malfunctions, data breaches, and auto accidents. Ford goes into detail about how it trains its human safety drivers, and discloses the presence of “Event Data Recorders” inside its vehicles — essentially “black boxes” for self-driving cars. “Safety doesn’t mean a sensor will never fail or an automated driving system will never err,” Ford says. “It’s about a holistic strategy to reduce the risk of failures and protect people in case something does go wrong.”

The company is currently testing its self-driving vehicles in Miami, and plans to begin production of a fully driverless car without a steering wheel and pedals starting in 2021. The company is conducting driverless delivery pilots with Domino’s Pizza and Postmates. And a bizarre viral video in which a Ford Transit van appeared to be piloted by a man dressed up as the front seat of a car turned out to be an experiment by Ford and Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute. (That’s in the report, too.)

Meanwhile, its main competitors are moving at a much quicker pace. Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, is gearing up to launch a driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix later this year, while GM’s Cruise has said it would launch its own robot taxi service in San Francisco in 2019.

Ford has doubled down on its mobility investments, acquiring a handful of transportation software providers and launching its own Google X-style incubator for its research and development projects. Last month, it spun out a new entity called Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, which is headed by Marakby. (Ford had previously spun out its more tech-focused services like ride-sharing and bike-sharing into a company called Ford Smart Mobility LLC.)


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