Mark your calendars: automakers plan to put truly autonomous cars on our roads in the next five years.
Ford has announced that it will manufacture a fleet of fully automated driverless cars, without steering wheels or pedals, and put them into commercial operation by 2021. The company—which has previously been modest about its self-driving-car claims—says that the vehicles will initially be used in ride-sharing fleets and for package delivery services, though it doesn’t say which companies might be involved.
To enact its plan, Ford has acquired the Israeli machine-learning firm SAIPS and invested $75 million into the laser imaging company Velodyne, and it plans to double the size of its Silicon Valley staff.
But it isn’t the first to give a firm date for the arrival of fully self-driving cars. It joins BMW, which has also promised to have an entirely autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021. The German automaker is working with Intel and Mobileye to develop the technology, which will be used in its forthcoming flagship model, iNext. It also plans to roll outs its cars as a fleet of robotic taxis.
Ford’s chief executive, Mark Fields, sounded impressed—perhaps even a little shocked—at how rapidly advances in self-driving technology are occurring as he announced his company’s news yesterday. “If someone had told you 10 years ago, or even five years ago, that the CEO 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,” he said during a news conference at Ford’s research center in Palo Alto.
The two automakers aren’t alone in developing self-driving cars, of course. Many other companies—among them Volvo, Mercedes-Benz, and Audi—are working on autonomous technologies, though none of them have said when they intend to launch a product.
Google has made headway in developing its autonomous vehicles, though it now faces the rather onerous task of finding a way, as an Internet company, to build out a fleet of vehicles on an assembly line. It hired the former chief executive of Hyundai, John Krafcik, to help with that, but it also recently lost its technical lead for its autonomous-cars project, Chris Urmson. Tesla, meanwhile, has been beta-testing its semi-autonomous Autopilot feature for a while now, with mixed results.
The flourishing of machine learning seems to be making it more straightforward for others to play catch-up with Google and Tesla, though. As part of that, we can expect to see automakers increasingly buying in autonomy technology from smaller, software-focused companies. General Motors did just that recently, acquiring the automated-driving startup Cruise for as much as $1 billion. And the University of Oxford spin-off Oxbotica, whose software is claimed to make any vehicle autonomous, has also said that it’s already working with auto manufacturers.
Both Ford and BMW are targeting ride sharing with their proposed first-generation autonomous vehicles. Again, they’re not alone. The startup Zoox, based in Menlo Park, California, is developing an autonomous vehicle intended for use as a robotic taxi, and both Uber and Lyft—the latter funded by GM—are experimenting with autonomous vehicles, too.
With so much focused research effort, 2021 may seem a realistic date to expect self-driving cars on the roads. They do have a habit of being “five years” away, though. In 2012, Sergey Brin promised that self-driving cars would be available to everyone in five years. In 2014, Elon Musk made a similar prediction. And in 2015, Google claimed that it would have a final autonomous car product ready in … five years.
But the trend you’ll notice is that until now, it’s been Silicon Valley providing estimates of when a car might be ready for the roads. It’s significant that large-scale automakers are now joining in with the predictions, because they’re the ones with the pedigree to churn cars out on a production line—and also the ones with the most to lose if things go wrong. The year of the fully autonomous automobile may yet prove to be 2021.
(Read more: Wall Street Journal, Bloomberg, “Ford CEO Explains Why It’s Hard to Build Self-Driving Cars,” “Oxbotica’s New Autonomous Vehicle Software Learns As It Goes,” “Alphabet’s Self-Driving-Car Wizard Picked a Great Time to Quit”)