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Ford Motor Co. is adding to its self-driving car testing operation in Austin, Texas, saying Dec. 11 it has secured two pieces of real estate that will be central to the project.
The Michigan-based automaker said it purchased property near Austin-Bergstrom International Airport to serve as a command center for its fleet of self-driving cars. Ford also is leasing space in east Austin that will function as a terminal for the fleet.
Ford announced in September that it would test self-driving auto technology in Austin, using a small fleet of fewer than 10 cars.
"We feel trust and acceptance is key. People are not going to trust and accept the technology if they just fundamentally don’t understand it or can’t connect to it.”https://t.co/x64P4GxeAg pic.twitter.com/SLj5ADTri0— Argo AI (@argoai) December 12, 2019
Ford has partnered with Pittsburgh-based Argo AI since 2017 through a $1 billion investment to support its foray into the autonomous vehicle market.
As part of the partnership, Ford provides vehicles, such as the Ford Fusion Hybrid, to be outfitted into self-driving cars through the use of Argo AI technology, which currently uses lidar, radar and cameras.
Ford declined to share the exact location of the new terminal, along with the new command center, citing security-related concerns.
The Austin command center is the first of its kind that Ford is opening in its three self-driving auto markets of Austin, Miami and Washington, according to a company news release.
If the command center operation is successful in Austin, Ford could deploy a similar strategy in its existing self-driving car markets, a company spokesperson told the American-Statesman.
Kathleen Baireuther, Austin market manager for Ford Autonomous Vehicles, said the two new facilities were designed to support the future fleet of vehicles. She said the company’s investment into real estate is a sign of Ford’s commitment to the city.
“The command center will be a mix of servicing, storing and managing vehicles,” Baireuther said. “We’ll have customer care, and have some of our business operations on site in Austin to support the local business and make sure that everything is running smoothly.”
Baireuther said the terminal, which will be in east Austin near the downtown area, primarily will be used to support Argo AI’s mapping of the city.
Argo AI Alan Hall said the mapping process is ongoing one and that Argo will need to update its records as the city grows and changes.
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The first phase of mapping involves driving around and mapping the city’s roads by teams made up of two human safety engineers to each test car.
“It’s not that hard to collect the data; you manually drive the car around in parts of the city that you want to map,” Hall said. “The more time-consuming part comes once you have the data; it does take time for our developers to build the maps.”
Hall said he expects actual autonomous testing of vehicles to begin this month.
As self-driving tests begin to ramp up, Hall said Ford and Argo will continue reaching out to the community to keep them updated on the status of testing, mapping, and eventually, service.
Argo AI also has started a podcast to keep people informed on its progress.
Hall said the company, which has about 500 employees, plans to grow its team in Austin but did not say how many employees the company is planning to add in the city.
“Now that we’re starting to operate and are building out the team with our real estate in Austin, We’ll look at other ways to start engaging the community,” Hall said.
Hall said Austin differs from the company’s other markets due to its tech-savvy population.
As it relates to road conditions, however, Hall said Argo AI mappers already have identified a hurdle: an abnormal volume of scooters.
“That’s one thing that is unique about Austin. Just like how we need to understand driver behavior in every city, along with pedestrian and bicycle behavior, we need to study scooter behavior,” Hall said.
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