Some automated-vehicle developers are synonymous with their test-bed cities. Cruise Automation conducts almost all its testing within the confines of San Francisco. Waymo has pinned its early focus on the Phoenix market.
Ford Motor Co., on the other hand, has gone in the opposite direction. When the company launches a commercial business centered on autonomous driving sometime in 2021, it intends to start in multiple markets.
One of those will be Austin, Texas.
On Wednesday morning, Ford revealed that the Lone Star State's capital will be one of the three cities it intends to do business in once operations commence. Argo.ai, the company building Ford's self-driving technology, will start mapping Austin's roads sometime this November. Austin joins Washington, D.C., and Miami as Ford's planned business locations.
Sherif Marakby, chief executive officer of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, the subsidiary set up to handle Ford's fledgling AV business, emphasized Wednesday that the company's pending arrival in Austin provides needed time to refine both technology and business blueprints.
Working on the latter now will help scale the business once the technology is ready, and that's one reason Ford is spreading resources across three major markets.
"We're doing it the hard way," Marakby said. "It's hard to do it that way, but we understand what it takes, because we've been doing it for a few years, planning depots, staff and technology development. One of the big pros of this approach is the ability to scale fast. If we have to launch in three cities in a variety of environments and campuses and things like that, we can scale fast. … And we think scale is key."
Perhaps more than any competitors, Ford has spent substantial efforts developing and vetting the business side of its self-driving operations. In Miami and Washington, Ford has worked with local businesses such as florists and dry cleaners to determine how its AVs might best suit their delivery needs. Already, the company has adjusted its plan and cast aside some initial preconceptions of how delivery services might work.
Ford did not say how many of its Fusion hybrid test vehicles it will immediately deploy to the Austin area to begin mapping and learning the habits of Austin drivers and other road users. Once it launches, the company will eschew the Fusions for a dedicated, purpose-built autonomous vehicle that has not yet been unveiled but is widely expected to be a hybrid that draws from learnings on the commercial side of the company's business and be sturdy enough to last for "hundreds of thousands of miles," according to Marakby.
He said Wednesday it's too early to say exactly what percentage of initial business will be targeted toward delivery services vs. ride-hailing operations. Both are in the company's initial plans.
AV plans changing
Broadly, Ford's steady rollout of test and prospective commercial markets comes at a time when others in the industry are recalibrating their autonomous-vehicle plans and time frames. Notably, Cruise Automation, GM's self-driving unit, delayed plans to launch a commercial business in 2019, with no amended timeline yet announced. Marakby touted the consistency of Ford's long-planned 2021 timeline when speaking to reporters earlier this week.
"We've never announced super-aggressive dates like 2018 or 2019," he said. "We've always seen that as too unrealistic. We've stuck with 2021 for initial commercialization of the service. …. We know the safe integration of the technology will take a few more years, and we're all in to drive the integration and the technology, and in parallel, work on the business. Technology for the sake of technology won't really result in a profitable business or work for the city. So we're sticking with our plan."
In Austin, Ford may find challenges on both the technology and business side of the operations that it hasn't encountered in Miami and D.C. Although those cities contain colleges, the size of the University of Texas campus and its proximity to downtown Austin offers the company a potential base of ride-hailing customers.
On the technology side, scooters might provide a newfound challenge for Argo's self-driving system. Austin has attracted scooters by the thousands. This year, city records show, companies deployed 10,000 scooters that resulted in more than 434,000 rides during the city's 10-day SXSW festival. While Argo has encountered scooters elsewhere, it hasn't seen them at the saturation level found in Austin, something bound to be valuable in training its self-driving system.
Ford has a history of working with Austin, a finalist for the U.S. Department of Transportation's Smart City Challenge, on innovation. In 2016, Ford Motor Credit Co. ran a short-lived shared-leasing pilot project in the city that gave customers the opportunity to share a lease and schedule time in the vehicle.
Austin is one of the markets in which Ford is running its "City:One Challenge," which delivers as much as $300,000 in grants to help city residents brings grassroots transportation ideas to city officials and implement pilot programs.