Wednesday, September 25, 2019 by Ryan Thornton

Ford to launch local commercial autonomous vehicle service in 2021

Confirming rumors, Ford Motor Company announced plans Wednesday to begin tests and preparations in Austin for deployment of a commercial autonomous vehicle service in 2021.

Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, told the Austin Monitor ahead of the announcement that Austin was chosen for several reasons, including progressive city leadership and culture, a moderate climate, and, crucially, a friendly state regulatory environment.

While much detail remains undisclosed, Dan Pierce of Ford Autonomous Vehicles said autonomous vehicles will arrive in the next couple of months to start the process. While the vehicles will be equipped with self-driving technology, they will be driven by employees of Argo AI, the company developing the technology, as the cars begin to map specific areas of Central and East Austin.

After the mapping process, which will take several months, the maps will undergo a quality test before any autonomous vehicles begin driving on city streets. Ford has not yet decided where the autonomous cars will operate first, but says each will be occupied by two “safety drivers,” one with hands hovering above the steering wheel, throughout the testing process, which may begin as early as mid-2020.

At some point in 2021, the company plans to go commercial with the technology, offering some combination of taxi and delivery services in partnership with companies located in the city. At that time, Pierce said, Ford will send the unoccupied vehicles out onto the streets for business.

Austin is one of three cities, alongside Washington, D.C., and Miami, where Ford has announced plans for its autonomous vehicle taxi and delivery service.

Kathleen Baireuther, with Markets and Operations at Ford, said the company plans to design and construct an operations center to store and conduct maintenance on the vehicles. At this point, Baireuther said, the company is not commenting on the facility’s location.

In order to make the service financially and logistically viable, Marakby said Ford has decided the cars will be hybrid-electric, able to operate all day carrying people or heavy cargo loads without requiring the long charging periods of purely electric vehicles. Marakby said the vehicles need to run most of the day for this to be a workable business plan.

Ford Autonomous Vehicles made the news recently when a representative estimated the cars may spend only four short years on the road before being crushed and recycled. The life span of the vehicles, Marakby explained, isn’t yet certain. The point, he added, is that they will be in use much more often than the typical car. The vehicles may not hit the 150,000-mile mark after only four years, he said, but they will reach that point faster than the average work vehicle.

Baireuther said Ford has been in communication with both the city manager and the mayor’s office in recent months. Based on those conversations, Baireuther said the company believes Austin’s leadership is thinking very progressively about its transportation future.

In a conversation with the Monitor last week, Smart Mobility Assistant Director Jason JonMichael said state law has given cities little control when it comes to autonomous vehicles. Since the city can’t force the operators to collaborate with city efforts, he said, Austin Transportation appreciates when a company makes a point to do so. Any degree of partnership, he said, makes it easier for the city to get what it wants out of the process.

Photo courtesy of Ford Motor.

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