LinhPTK | May 29, 2017
Would you trust your safety to a car without a steering wheel? If you are a frequent user of car services, taxicabs, or ride hailing apps, that fully automated future may be closer than you think. Ford recently turned the automotive world on its head when it announced that it would produce a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles by 2021.
That 2021 target date may seem like a long way off, but given the fact that 2016 is more than half over, the fully automated future is actually less than half a decade away. Before you know it, you could be climbing into the passenger seat and letting a steering wheel-less Ford car whisk you where you need to go.
Bold Move – Or Desperate Attempt to Catch Up?
As with many such announcements, the recent revelation that Ford would soon bring a line of fully autonomous vehicles – cars without a steering wheel no less – to market by 2021 – was met with a mixture of excitement and skepticism. Some automotive experts heralded Ford for its innovation and commitment to a future where cars drive themselves and humans simply enjoy the ride. Others were more skeptical, even suggesting that Ford was simply trying to make up for lost time and atone for past mistakes.
In some ways, it is easy to see what there are so many skeptics about Ford and its commitment to autonomous vehicles. While some automakers, most notably Tesla but high-end makers like Mercedes-Benz and Audi, showed an early interest in self-driving vehicles and driver-assist technologies, many industry watchers said that Ford was late to the party. With its new focus on fully autonomous cars designed specifically for the fleet market, it seems clear that Ford is trying to leapfrog its rivals and emerge as the undisputed leader in the future of transportation.
A New Focus
The approach Ford is taking toward that self-driving future is certainly unique. While rivals, even high-end carmakers like Mercedes-Benz, Lexus, Audi and current industry leader Tesla, are focused primarily on assisting human drivers and helping them operate their vehicles more safely,
At the same time, a growing number of carmakers, including major names from throughout the world, have been busy forging partnerships with tech firms. From strategic investments in companies like Uber and Lyft to teamwork with established tech giants like Google and Microsoft, Detroit and Silicon Valley have been teaming up like never before.
Some industry watchers had previously noted that Ford often seemed like the odd man out in this world of strategic partnerships. Now it seems that Ford is taking a much more ambitious approach. By designing a fleet of vehicles without a steering wheel, Ford is taking human drivers out of the picture altogether, relegating them to mere passenger status.
While any commuter who has spent time in bumper-to-bumper traffic can appreciate the concept of kicking back and relaxing, or even taking a nap, on the way to work, industry experts still wonder if the public at large is ready to let their cars do all the driving.
An Incremental Approach to Widespread Acceptance
That is why the recent announcement by Ford is so intriguing, and so potentially groundbreaking. While some safety concerns certainly remain on the road to self-driving cars, so far the evidence is clear – technology seems to be much better at driving than humans are.
That means that the most significant roadblock for self-driving cars may be public acceptance. No matter what the evidence says, we humans tend to think we are better at driving than we actually are. That could make us reluctant to turn over the driving to our cars, and that reluctance could hold self-driving technology back by years – or even stop it in its tracks.
By introducing fully autonomous cars in an incremental and highly regimented manner, Ford could end up changing the future in a whole new way. When Ford made its announcement about a self-driving fleet of steering wheel-less cars, the company was quick to point out that those vehicles could be available only to the operators of ride hailing services, taxi companies and car services.
In the end, that move could speed the acceptance of autonomous vehicle technology and make the general public more accepting of the future of transportation. After all, drivers are already familiar with ride hailing services like Uber and Lyft, so that barrier to entry has already been broken. In time, Ford hopes drivers will be more and more willing to let their cars take the wheel, symbolically speaking. So by 2021, that taxi you haul or Uber ride you hail could arrive all by itself – without even a steering wheel to guide it. Only time will tell what the future of self-driving cars has in mind, but it is already clear that the fight for dominance is on – and that it involves some of the most significant players in the industry.