Aug. 16, 2016, was meant to be Mark Fields' JFK moment.
That's when Fields announced, in unambiguous terms, Ford Motor Co.'s moonshot.
"Ford is going to be mass producing vehicles with full autonomy in five years," Fields said. "That means there's going to be no steering wheel, there's not going to be a gas pedal, there's not going to be a brake pedal, and of course, a driver is not going to be required."
Six years, billions of dollars and two CEOs later, Ford is not doing that. Or anything even close.
In fact, CFO John Lawler concedes that such an achievement is still "five-plus years away," meaning the technology is still as far from reality as Ford believed it was when Fields made his proclamation.
But rather than continuing to string shareholders along or gin up excuses, Ford did something rather astounding this week. It stopped lighting money on fire in pursuit of a goal it had severely underestimated.
"Things have changed," CEO Jim Farley said in an Oct. 26 statement. "Profitable, fully autonomous vehicles at scale are a long way off."
This abrupt shift in tenor and strategy includes a plan to shut down Argo AI, which was a little-known startup when Ford poured $1 billion into it in the waning months of Fields' tenure. With the backing of Ford and later Volkswagen Group, Argo came to be viewed as one of the industry's top self-driving tech companies.
But as it began having trouble attracting more investors and its timelines drifted further into the future, Ford decided to focus on driver-assist technology it can deploy and make money from sooner.
The idea of autonomous vehicles is by no means dead. Cruise — backed by General Motors and Honda — and Waymo have launched robotaxi services in limited geographic areas. A number of other companies say they're close to commercializing more specialized autonomous technology, such as trucks to haul freight over long distances or vehicles that stick to limited-access highways, avoiding exponentially more challenging urban settings.
However, it's clear that the nap-through-your-commute utopia some envisioned when the industry began embracing the concept of autonomy will remain sci-fi fantasy for the near term. Tesla — which had promised to put 1 million robotaxis on the road by 2020 and whose CEO, Elon Musk, continues to insist that autonomy is just around the corner — is reportedly under criminal investigation for claims related to the costly upgrade it sells called Full Self Driving.