Ford Motor Co. Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields said that an auto maker probably will introduce a self-driving vehicle within half a decade, but it won't be his company, which is focusing on less expensive features that assist in driving.
"Fully autonomous vehicles are a real possibility," Fields said at a Jan. 5 dinner with analysts and journalists on the eve of the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. "Probably, in the next five years, you'll see somebody introduce autonomous vehicles."
Auto makers are racing to develop self-driving cars that safely transport commuters in congested urban areas. At the same conference, Daimler AG CEO Dieter Zetsche unveiled the Mercedes-Benz F 015, a concept car that can autonomously move people.
If Ford's forecast comes true, consumers may someday be able to buy a vehicle without a steering wheel or brake pedals that would operate in auto-pilot mode, driving more efficiently and reducing traffic jams. In the meantime, auto makers are seeking a piece of the $11.3-billion (U.S.) in factory-installed technologies going into cars this year, according to the Consumer Electronics Association.
The F 015 Mercedes concept car has four seats, including the driver's, that can face each other, rather than the road, Daimler said today in Las Vegas. Six screens allow passengers to monitor information about the vehicle and the outside world, using technology that responds to eye movements and gestures.
"We have a master plan in place to take the big leap required getting from technically feasible to commercially viable," Daimler's Zetsche said yesterday in Las Vegas. "The F 015 Luxury in Motion demonstrates where this may take us."
Instead of being the first to sell autonomous vehicles, Ford wants to "democratize" technology that assists drivers throughout its model line, offering it at prices even economy– car buyers can afford, Fields said. That includes features that can automatically park a car, steer it back into its lane and brake to avoid collisions.
"You can go into a dealership and get a Ford Focus that can park itself right now," Raj Nair, Ford's product development chief, said of the automaker's compact car that starts at $16,810. "If you want to go to the full extreme – full autonomy – literally a vehicle that has no steering wheel and has no pedals, that's a tremendous technical challenge, but one that we believe that in the next five years will be possible."
General Motors Co. said in September it will introduce hands-free driving technology on a Cadillac in two years. GM CEO Mary Barra said at the time that having a car drive for you is "true luxury."
Self-driving cars will probably be found in densely populated urban areas that have been thoroughly digitally mapped so that the vehicles' sensors can read the road, other cars and the environment, Nair said. As more of the world's population moves into big cities, autonomous cars are aimed at reducing congestion because they could adjust for each other's speed differences more precisely, flowing through streets like schools of fish.
"The technology's capability of being better than any one of us as an individual driver is definitely on the horizon," Nair said. "It's not a matter of if, but when."
First, though, government regulators around the world need to come up with new rules of the road for vehicles that drive themselves, Fields said. Ford is already speaking with regulators to help them prepare for driverless cars, he said.
"The level of robustness that society and regulatory agencies are going to expect, that's another story," Nair said. "That's something we need to work on."
A record 10 auto makers are showing their wares at CES on an exhibit space the size of three football fields. In addition to self-driving cars, auto and tech companies are displaying dashboards covered in curved touch-screens, vehicles controlled by smartwatches and entertainment systems operated with a wave of the hand.
Ford is trying to make a business out of broader forms of mobility as it foresees a future where consumers buy fewer cars as they migrate into "megacities" of more than 10 million people, Fields said today in a speech at CES. The auto maker has 25 research projects around the world looking at alternate mobility such as ride sharing, bike sharing and developing smartphone apps to find parking in congested urban centres.
"We're doing a lot of experimentation," Fields told reporters after his speech. "We're doing these experiments to learn, 'Is there a business model in there for us?'"