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Ford putting self-driving cars in a fast lane

US automaker said fuelling the effort with ramped up investments in technology and by doubling the size of the team at its campus in Silicon Valley

Gulf News

San Francisco: Ford Motor Company vowed Tuesday to have self-driving cars on the road for ride-sharing services by the year 2021.

The US automaker said it was fuelling the effort with ramped up investments in technology and by doubling the size of the team at its autonomous-car campus in Silicon Valley.

“We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Ford chief executive Mark Fields.

“We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people — not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

Baidu on board

As part of that mission, Ford joined Chinese internet giant Baidu to pump a combined $150 million (Dh550.5 million) into Velodyne, a US firm specialising in self-driving car sensors.

California-based Velodyne said the cash infusion will enable it to quickly expand the design and production of “LiDAR” high-performance sensors for autonomous vehicles.

“From the very beginning of our autonomous vehicle program, we saw LiDAR as key enabler due to its sensing capabilities and how it complements radar and cameras,” Ford executive vice president and chief technology officer Raj Nair said in a joint statement.

He described the investment in Velodyne as “a clear sign of our commitment to making autonomous vehicles available for consumers around the world.”

Baidu, an investor in on-demand ride service Uber, said in the statement that it was testing a fleet of self-driving vehicles in China as part of a vision for promoting safe use of the technology on a global scale.

“Baidu is developing autonomous vehicles with the intention to increase passenger safety and reduce traffic congestion and pollution in China,” said Baidu senior vice president and autonomous driving unit general manager Jing Wang.

“Our investment will accelerate our efforts in autonomous driving.”

The investment will help Velodyne ramp up production and drive down the cost of LiDAR sensors, which work like radar to detect objects but rely on lasers.

“We want the cost to be low enough to be used for all cars,” said Velodyne president of business development Marta Hall.

No steering wheel

Ford’s first fully autonomous vehicle will not have a steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal, according to the carmaker. The self-driving vehicle is being designed for services such as on-demand ride services, Ford said.

Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than a decade, according to Nair.

Ford planned to triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet this year, putting about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans on roads in the US states of Arizona, California and Michigan.

Along with investing in Velodyne, Ford announced it was either pumping money into or collaborating on research into software, mapping, radar and camera sensors to achieve its goal of delivering autonomous cars in five years.

Ford said that it has acquired Israel-based computer vision and machine-learning company SAIPS to help the company’s cars adapt to their surroundings.

Ford also said that it made an exclusive licensing deal with machine vision company Nirenberg Neuroscience to help imbue driving systems with human-like smarts, and that the car-maker has invested in a Northern California 3D mapping firm.

Ford will add two new buildings and lab space to its Silicon Valley research centre, which opened early last year and boasts 130 researchers, engineers and scientists.

The team there will be doubled in size by the end of next year, according to Ford.

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