Ford exec discusses the future of self-driving cars and autonomous ridesharing services

The car company's strategy was explained in a talk at the Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit Monday.

Self-driving car concept

Image: metamorworks/Shutterstock

The power of mobility brings access to freedom and community. It is poised to disrupt how we move around and between cities in the next decade as self-driving technology rolls out, according to Megan Prichard, global head of autonomous ridesharing at Ford Motor Co.

Speaking at the Lesbians Who Tech Pride Summit Monday, Prichard gave an overview of how self-driving works and outlined Ford's plans for the next few years.

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"What you're going to start seeing as soon as 2023, which is what we're shooting for, is a vehicle capable of driving fully autonomously within specific geographic areas during appropriate weather conditions," Prichard said.

This means when in autonomous mode, the car has the full responsibility for driving, she said, adding that today, there is no vehicle on the market that is fully autonomous. Cars today still require a driver to stay focused on the road.

Ford has been conducting road tests in Austin, Texas; Miami, Florida; and in Washington, D.C.; and research has shown that perceptions around self-driving cars vary with "a lot of different emotions," she said. Ford has to take into account how people feel about this "and how can we build something that works for everyone."

In 2017, Ford invested in self-driving platform company Argo AI. "Things since have really taken off," Prichard said, and in 2020, Ford launched the Escape Hybrid, a fully autonomous car that will also serve as Ford's future autonomous ride-sharing service.

The company aims to make the car's self-driving system smart and working as a human driver would, she said. The car is embedded with sensors and cameras and a "tiara" on the top where most of the cameras are and lasers that shoot out information. It is also equipped with long-range lidar and near field radars and lidars to provide a 360-degree view of everything surrounding the vehicle, according to Prichard.

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Before a car is tested autonomously in a city, the area is first mapped out. "The map forms a complex system of tracking," so that when a car approaches an intersection it knows what to expect.

Right now, Ford is working on testing all the components on the lidar system on top of the vehicle and will then test it in a simulated virtual environment. From there, the car will be tested on closed courses around the country and then on public roads with safety drivers as a precaution in the event that something happens with the Argo SDS.

The cameras, radar and lidar gather real-time data, then plan for every object around it and then take an action: break, throttle or steer, Prichard said.

The car can detect cyclists, and the SDS knows when it is safe to make a turn, she said.

The Argo lidar sensor system provides 400 meters of range and can differentiate between colors in clothing as well as dark objects and distinguish between things like small animals, vegetation and static objects, Prichard said.

Ford's self-driving service

Ford and Argo have also partnered to bring to real-world services that move people and goods, she said. They are working in collaboration with Austin, Miami and D.C. to develop "a comprehensive understanding of what people and local businesses will find useful. … We see self-driving services being one part of a broader mobility solution for a city," Prichard said.

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The two companies are partnering with major ride-sharing apps and grocery chains to bring this service to their platforms. If a passenger gets a ride from an autonomous vehicle they will use an app and then authenticate that they are the correct rider.

"If a car doesn't have a driver how do you authenticate and confirm a destination? That's a big issue from the product side. So we have test specialists with riders," she said.

The two companies conducted an experiment with Postmates in Miami to understand how people would interact with goods, she said.

Ultimately, Ford believes that self-driving services can improve safety, Prichard said, adding that 94% of accidents are caused by human error. The company is also working on bringing the cost per mile down, currently between $2.20 to $2.50, depending on the city, to around 60 cents, with shared vehicles.

Ford expects to do that within the next decade "so we can all use this shared resource and make it much more affordable," she said.

Tests are also being conducted in Palo Alto, California; Dearborn, Michigan; and Pittsburgh, so the algorithms can learn how different people drive. Multicity testing ensures "we're not creating a one-size-fits-all" shared service and that they are meeting the needs of all cities, Prichard said.

"The goal is to bring down the cost of transportation for everyone [and] make cities accessible and safe."

In answers to questions from the audience, Prichard said there are plans to expand self-driving services to less densely populated parts of the country, and that Ford is working with "top security teams" to develop algorithms and encryption to keep data safe so autonomous cars cannot be hacked.

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