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Ford won't let a few potholes halt its path to autonomous cars

One of Ford's self-driving test vehicles on the streets of Washington, D.C.
One of Ford's self-driving test vehicles on the streets of D.C. Photo: Ford

Ford will continue its push toward "mobility" to position itself as a key player in autonomous vehicles, even as the traditional car industry seems headed for a down cycle and the realistic timeframe for AVs is being adjusted to later, several company executives tell Axios.

Why it matters: Though Ford still gets most of its revenue selling personal vehicles, the company sees a world where people rely on a much wider mix of transportation modes. To transform itself for its AV goals, Ford has made a range of acquisitions and has brought more of its technology development in-house.

Driving the news: Ford's actions include buying the private bus startup Chariot and a scooter business called Spin. It's also hiring more engineers to develop more technology in-house, including both self-driving capabilities and the next version of its Sync navigation/entertainment system.

The Spin purchase is a recognition that micro-vehicles of some sort will be an important part of the "first mile" and "last mile" of transit, even if they ultimately take a somewhat different form than today's scooters, EVP Marcy Klevorn tells Axios.

  • Spin was of particular interest to Ford, Klevorn adds, because it was working with cities, not just dumping scooters on sidewalks like some rivals.
  • This relationship approach will be key to self-driving cars as well, she says.

In-house technology will be key to meet competition from tech giants Google and Apple, Ford CTO Ken Washington tells Axios.

  • Ford is doubling down on a bet it can out-innovate the tech giants, which are in the throes of battling for a bigger share of in-car electronics, so it has brought more engineering in-house for its Sync entertainment and navigation system.
  • Systems like Apple CarPlay and Android Auto that work only when a compatible phone is brought in the car and a user chooses such an interface are fine. But the company says it has no interest in giving the companies a larger, more permanent place.
  • "We've been very clear for quite some time we don't want to delegate our future to others," Washington says.

Ford expects the time frame of AV arrivals will be longer than the most optimistic estimates.

  • "Reality is kicking in," Ford VP Sherif Marakby tells Axios. "The promises of launching autonomous vehicles without a driver in 2018 and 2019 are fading fast."
  • Marakby says 2021 is a more realistic time frame for AVs at scale. But, he adds, Ford is convinced it will be one the few companies left standing.
  • "We believe there are probably going to be 2–3 successful operating systems in autonomous vehicles," Marakby says. "We plan to be one of those."

The big picture: Ford's rivals are also making big bets, albeit with different approaches.

  • Toyota is spending billions on homegrown research in areas like AI, autonomy and robotics, and GM has pumped around $2 billion into self-driving startup Cruise Automation.
  • And, like Ford, GM plans to keep spending on the future even as it scales back the present. It said in November "resources allocated to electric and autonomous vehicle programs will double in the next two years" even as it announced 5 factory shutdowns and nearly 15,000 job cuts.

Yes, but: One thing that the company won't be doing, as I scooped yesterday, is moving forward with sponsorship of the Ford GoBike bicycle-sharing service in San Francisco. Ford and Lyft, which now owns the startup that runs the multi-city bike-sharing service, plan to end the deal over the next couple of months.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to reflect more recent estimates of GM's investment in Cruise Automation.