Ford reaffirms promise of self-driving cars by 2021 (but you won't be able to buy them)

April 5, 2017

Until this week, casual news-followers might not have known about Ford's ambitions in the field of self-driving cars. But oh, what a difference a few days can make.

Yesterday, we shared details from a new report that puts Ford at the head of the autonomous car pack, outperforming far younger firms like Tesla and Waymo. Now, the Detroit automaker has reaffirmed its promise to unveil fully self-driving vehicles by the year 2021--though consumers probably won't be able to buy them until at least 2026.

Speaking to the Society of Automotive Engineers International World Congress on Tuesday, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering, Ken Watson, said that by 2021, Ford will produce vehicles capable of level-four autonomy on the SAE scale. That scale divides self-driving technology into six categories, ranging from zero (no autonomous capabilities) to five (fully autonomous with no need of a human driver).

Level-four autonomy almost entirely eliminates the need for human intervention. The short definition, according to SAE International, is that in level-four vehicles, "The driving mode-specific performance by an Automated Driving System [oversees] all aspects of the dynamic driving task, even if a human driver does not respond appropriately to a request to intervene." 

In other words, humans can take control of a level-four vehicle if there's a sudden problem on the road, but it's not necessary. Such software is capable of handling anything that might come its way. The only difference between level-four and level-five vehicles is that in the latter, human intervention may be entirely prohibited. 

Bottom line: Ford is preparing to roll out some very advanced software, and it's planning to do so on the same aggressive timeline that it announced last summer

And now the bad news--at least for autonomous car fans: Ford's first self-driving vehicles won't be available for purchase by consumers.

Instead, as Ford hinted last August, they'll operate as a part of taxi-style fleets, in much the way that Uber's self-driving vehicles are doing in California, New Mexico, and Pennsylvania and as Mercedes-Benz plans to do by 2023*.

Though companies like Tesla clearly believe that demand for self-driving vehicles will ramp up dramatically in the coming years, Ford is taking a more cautious approach--one that seems warranted, based on studies we've seen. As of today, the automaker doesn't plan to sell autonomous cars to shoppers until 2026 at the earliest, and possibly not until 2031. 

* FYI, Uber has Ford vehicles in its test fleets, however they're running Uber's self-driving software, not Ford's.

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