Ford Doubles Down on Self-Driving Cars

17Ford_F-150_Raptor_ES.jpg photo by Evan Sears

CARS.COM — You can’t blame Ford for not putting its money where its mouth is, at least when it comes to investing in the world of self-driving cars and artificial intelligence. The American auto giant’s recent purchase of Argo AI, a small engineering startup based in Pittsburgh, proves that Ford is serious about catching up in the race toward new mobility solutions.

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That includes everything from car-sharing and ride-hailing services (such as Zipcar and Uber) to the development of self-drive vehicles that might revolutionize car ownership itself. Rather than buying a vehicle outright, you could potentially use credits to reserve one only when needed. Then, with the push of a button, your self-driving Ford will arrive right where it’s needed to shuttle you to your destination.

Why Should I Care? Competition is a good thing, especially when it’s an emerging technology that could transform how we get from Point A to Point B. For Ford investors, it’s also a positive sign the company doesn’t want to get left behind as rivals make bigger and faster strides in the field of autonomous drive systems and artificial intelligence for cars.

In Ford’s press release, company president and CEO Mark Fields stated, “The next decade will be defined by the automation of the automobile, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago.”

Ford’s Engineers Can’t Stay Awake in Self-Driving Cars

Meanwhile, Ford has a serious problem with its fleet of self-driving cars: When operating in autonomous drive mode, free from any human intervention, the ride is proving to be so relaxing that its engineers are falling asleep behind the wheel. Yes, the self-driving car dream of being able to snooze while your vehicle zips you down the road is fast becoming something of a waking nightmare for Ford Motor Company.

The problem was first noted by Bloomberg, and it’s hardly limited to Ford or its fleet of Fusion sedan self-drive prototypes.

Every major automaker and technology company is now faced with a dilemma regarding how much human intervention is needed during complex driving situations. Should an inattentive — or possibly asleep — person be alerted and forced to take control? Or is it better to leave the driving to the car, to avoid a mix-up of driving commands that could make a bad situation even worse?

Why Should I Care? The debate is all about levels — literally the ones developed by SAE International pertaining to the amount a given vehicle can, or cannot, drive itself. A Level 0 vehicle means you’re in charge and doing the driving all the time; at Level 5, you’re as useful as the luggage in the trunk of your current car. The vehicle is doing every bit of the driving at this point, leaving you and other occupants free to relax and enjoy the ride.

Some automakers, such as Audi and Mercedes-Benz, believe that Level 3 autonomy is a solid starting point for autonomous driving tech. This means that a human must stay alert and be ready to take control should weather conditions or others factors call for it. Ford is of the belief that Level 3 autonomy will only lead to confusion amongst car buyers and, potentially, cause a spike in crashes because people won’t understand when (or if) they should be overriding their vehicle’s commands.

That’s why Ford is skipping Level 3 entirely and planning to introduce a vehicle with Level 4 autonomy by 2021. When in operation, Ford’s system will even tuck the steering wheel and pedals away to prevent any chance of human interference.  It’s a bold step and, up to now, still an unproven one.

Then again, it also remains to be seen whether a midpoint degree of human-and-machine interfacing, proposed by Level 3 systems, is a step (or in this case, a level) in the right direction.

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