John Gilchrist, Ford Mustang Mach-E engineer, demonstrates Active Drive Assist, which allows for hands-free driving on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in the U.S. and Canada. Photo: Ford

Ford is preparing to launch a hands-free driving feature on certain 2021 models, starting with its upcoming electric crossover, the Mustang Mach-E.

Why it matters: The plug-in Mach-E is Ford's Tesla fighter, which means it needs assisted driving capability to compete with Tesla's Autopilot. Like the Tesla system, Ford's new Active Drive Assist has limitations.

  • "You are always in charge and you must pay attention to the road ahead," Darren Palmer, Ford's global director for battery electric vehicles, told journalists this week.

Details: Ford's hands-free driving system is actually more like GM's Super Cruise technology, now available on select Cadillacs.

  • An infrared camera mounted on the dashboard keeps track of the driver's gaze and head position, even if the driver is wearing sunglasses or a face mask. (Tesla doesn't have a driver monitoring system, which is why GM's system gets higher marks from Consumer Reports.)
  • Ford's technology will enable hands-free driving on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in the U.S. and Canada, under the right circumstances.

There is one way that Ford is copying Tesla, though: Buyers need to pay for the hardware upfront, because the software that enables the hands-free feature isn't ready yet and will have to be added later.

  • In Ford's case, starting later this year Mach-E buyers can pay for the Active Drive Assist hardware as part of the Ford Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 Prep Package.
  • Then in late 2021, they'll pay another fee to add the software that enables hands-free driving either via an over-the-air update or installed at a dealership.
  • Ford has not announced pricing for the hardware or the software.
  • Tesla buyers pay $7,000 — and starting July 1, $8,000 — for "full self-driving" technology that is not yet available, not is it clear when it will be.

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