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Illustration: Sarah Grillo/Axios

Ford is as intent on finding a profitable business model for autonomous vehicles as it is on the underlying technology. CEO Jim Hackett told me their AV research is advancing rapidly, but they are equally focused on building a transportation service based on what people need and want.

Why it matters: Unlike some of its competitors, Ford — one of the world's largest automakers — hasn't crowed much about its position in the race to develop self-driving cars. That's led to the perception that Ford has fallen behind. But Ford is taking a slightly different tack, with the understanding that large-scale adoption of autonomous vehicles won't happen unless paying customers see value in them.

The big picture:

  • Ford has been fairly quiet about the state of its autonomous vehicle development, amid a larger turnaround effort under Hackett.
  • Waymo is the AV leader, with plans to launch a commercial robotaxi service in metro Phoenix by year-end.
  • GM Cruise will follow in San Francisco next year.
  • Ford's self-driving fleet won't launch until 2021.

The background:

  • Ford invested $1 billion in Argo AI, a tiny Pittsburgh-based artificial intelligence company with a handful of employees in February 2017.
  • It offered lucrative stakes in the company to lure talent from Uber, Apple and Waymo, among others.
  • Including Argo AI, Ford now has more than 800 people working on autonomous technology.
  • The carmaker recently carved out its AV project as a separate business, to accelerate development and attract investors.
  • The company expects to invest $4 billion in its AV efforts through 2023.

Where it stands: Applying Argo AI's virtual driver system to its own vehicle hardware, Ford is now on a faster development trajectory than Waymo was, Hackett told me.

"I don't think we're behind anyone else, even GM."
— Ford CEO James Hackett

Yes, but: Ford says it isn't worried about being first; it wants to make money. The secret there is high utilization rates: keep those self-driving cars on the road, collecting revenue, as much as possible. That's why Ford is partnering with others to create demand for its vehicles rather than pouring money into building its own ride-hailing business like Waymo or GM Cruise.

  • Hackett says automated goods delivery has as much promise as driverless taxis. With its partners' insights, Ford is designing a purpose-built autonomous vehicle it will introduce in 2021.

My thought bubble: If you don't have a business model that works, great technology doesn’t matter. Just ask Blackberry.

The details:

What's next: Ford is using its commercial vehicles expertise to develop routing and dispatch technology for fleet management and is building out a transportation-as-a-service platform to integrate with its business partners. The company will pull back the curtain on these efforts next month.

Go deeper

Off the Rails

Episode 5: The secret CIA plan

Photo illustration: Aïda Amer, Sarah Grillo/Axios. Photo: Zach Gibson/Getty Images

Beginning on election night 2020 and continuing through his final days in office, Donald Trump unraveled and dragged America with him, to the point that his followers sacked the U.S. Capitol with two weeks left in his term. This Axios series takes you inside the collapse of a president.

Episode 5: Trump vs. Gina — The president becomes increasingly rash and devises a plan to tamper with the nation's intelligence command.

In his final weeks in office, after losing the election to Joe Biden, President Donald Trump embarked on a vengeful exit strategy that included a hasty and ill-thought-out plan to jam up CIA Director Gina Haspel by firing her top deputy and replacing him with a protege of Republican Congressman Devin Nunes.

Updated 2 hours ago - Politics & Policy

Coronavirus dashboard

Illustration: Annelise Capossela/Axios

  1. Health: CDC director defends agency's response to pandemic — CDC warns highly transmissible coronavirus variant could become dominant in U.S. in March.
  2. Politics: Empire State Building among hundreds to light up in Biden inauguration coronavirus tribute.
  3. Vaccine: Fauci: 100 million doses in 100 days is "absolutely" doable.
  4. Economy: Unemployment filings explode again.
  5. Tech: Kids' screen time sees a big increase.

Biden Cabinet confirmation schedule: When to watch hearings

Joe Biden and Kamala Harris on Jan. 16 in Wilmington, Delaware. Photo: Angela Weiss/AFP via Getty Images

The first hearings for President-elect Joe Biden's Cabinet nominations begin on Tuesday, with testimony from his picks to lead the departments of State, Homeland and Defense.

Why it matters: It's been a slow start for a process that usually takes place days or weeks earlier for incoming presidents. The first slate of nominees will appear on Tuesday before a Republican-controlled Senate, but that will change once the new Democratic senators-elect from Georgia are sworn in.