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Ford promises autonomous vehicles by 2021

In a bid to be both a mobility company and automaker, Ford is making big investments in new technology

While the age of driverless cars appears to draw closer every month, few believe it’s right around the corner. The significant technical and engineering challenges that must be solved before turning the keys over the robot drivers have kept car companies and developers from attaching any specific dates to a future product release.

That is, until now. On Tuesday, Ford’s CEO Mark Fields announced the company will have a new type of driverless car on the road by 2021, operated by a ride-hailing service. Fields’ wasn’t very specific on how that would happen, but he was very clear that this was going to be something very different:

"That means there’s going to be no steering wheel. There’s going to be no gas pedal. There’s going to be no brake pedal. If someone had told you 10 years ago, or even five years ago, that the C.E.O. of a major automaker American car company is going to be announcing the mass production of fully autonomous vehicles, they would have been called crazy or nuts or both."

Ford’s move, while ambitious and even audacious, reflects the massive shakeup that new technology has brought to the auto industry. It’s a "seismic shift," according to Fields, that has pitted Ford, its traditional competitors, as well as tech titans including Google, Apple, and Uber, against each other in a multi-billion dollar battle for share of an emerging and evolving transportation market.

With that competition in mind, Fields also announced that Ford would be doubling the size of its Palo Alto research center, acquired Israeli start-up Saips, which specializes in computer vision, and made investments in three companies that would also help speed-up its development of autonomous transportation: Velodyne, which develops the type of lidar sensor tech that driverless cars use to see, Nirenberg Neuroscience, which focuses on machine vision, and Civil Maps, which creates digital maps for automated vehicles.

This technological race for a commercially available driverless car is complicated by changes in ownership models and access, as the success of companies such as Zipcar and Lyft point to a more decentralized future where car ownership can easily be replaced with apps and/or a membership model.

During an interview in New York in March, Dr. Ken Washington, Ford’s Vice President of Research and Advanced Engineering, portrayed the shift as not just one of vehicle technology, but of service. Ford has been focused on rolling out new products that reflect the current landscape. The company rolled out small tests of car-sharing programs, such as the Ford Credit Link initiative in Austin, Texas, and FordPass, a mobility app rolled out during the North American International Auto Show that includes navigation, payment, and car-sharing features.

"We want to be able to deliver a broader ecosystem," he says. "It’s all kind of stitched together. We’re expanding our business to become a mobility company and an automaker."

Autonomy is part of a broader mobility ecosystem, according to Washington. Since the first autonomous cars will likely be part of a car-sharing or ride-hailing service, it’s important to understand these markets during the car design phase.

"We’re recognizing people are moving to cities," says Washington. "We need to bring autonomous vehicle, smart vehicle, data analytics, and connectivity together. They’re all important."