Ford to Begin Autonomous Vehicle Testing in Texas

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Krisztian Bocsi/Bloomberg News

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Ford Motor Co. will begin testing self-driving cars in Austin, Texas.

The automaker said Sept. 25 it will begin testing there in November, when hybrid Ford Fusions equipped with hardware and software developed by self-driving partner Argo AI will hit Austin roads. Austin is the third city Ford and Argo will use to build out a business plan for the autonomous vehicles the companies plan to introduce in 2021.

“One of the key strategies for Ford is to work with the cities years in advance,” said Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC. “We’re doing it the hard way.”

Ford currently tests its autonomous vehicles in several cities around the country, but focuses on developing a business model for those vehicles in Miami and Washington. Austin will join that set of cities where the automaker establishes a “depot” where the vehicles are based, and teams of engineers and safety drivers to run tests throughout the city.

That approach, Marakby said, allows the automaker to develop a robust, tailor-made digital driver that is adapted to the driving patterns and driving conditions in a specific city. In Miami, for example, Ford and Argo vehicles have learned to navigate intricate turns, and how to drive with sand on roadways.

“The future entry of automated vehicles services into Austin marks a very meaningful opportunity to address issues like safety, equity and accessibility for all,” Austin Mayor Steve Adler said in a blog post. “We’re looking forward to seeing how test vehicles can be put to use — and to build out public services based on the foundation that Ford is building in Austin.”

The automaker is building business models in those cities with the goal of launching its autonomous vehicle business there in 2021, but will adjust plans based on what they learn during the testing period.

Ford believes its approach to build out business models in multiple cities will allow the company the ability to quickly increase the volume of its autonomous vehicle business when the automaker is ready to launch.

The automaker doesn’t run its vehicles in small, controlled areas for its testing in cities. After mapping runs and some preparation work in cities, Ford runs its test vehicles — in full-autonomous mode with two safety drivers in the front seats — on “live” city streets. Nothing about the test runs are planned other than the route. The cars may encounter anything from pedestrians and accidents to emergency vehicles and construction.

The automaker has said that gives the “brain” of the vehicle much more robust data with which to work, and better prepares the vehicles to be fully operational.

The Austin announcement comes not long after General Motors Co. officially pushed back its 2019 launch date for its autonomous vehicle taxi service. Marakby said Ford plans to use its as-yet unreleased, purpose-built autonomous vehicle to deliver both people and goods. And the 2021 launch date is looking better and more accurate as time progresses, and other companies miss targets.

“We’ve never announced a super-aggressive date,” he said. “We feel it’s realistic.”

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