“Autonomous vehicles could have just as much significant impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” said Mark Fields, chief executive of Ford.
by NEAL E. BOUDETTE
In the race to develop driverless cars, several automakers and technology companies are already testing vehicles that pilot themselves on public roads. And others have outlined plans to expand their development fleets over the next few years.
But few have gone so far as to give a definitive date for the commercial debut of these cars of the future.
Now Ford Motor has done just that.
At a news conference on Tuesday at the company’s research center in Palo Alto, Calif., Mark Fields, Ford’s chief executive, said the company planned to mass produce driverless cars and have them in commercial operation in a ride-hailing service by 2021.
Beyond that, Mr. Fields’s announcement was short on specifics. But he said that the vehicles Ford envisioned would be radically different from those that populate American roads now.
“That means there’s going to be no steering wheel. There’s going to be no gas pedal. There’s going to be no brake pedal,’’ he said. “If someone had told you 10 years ago, or even five years ago, that the C.E.O. of a major automaker American car company is going to be announcing the mass production of fully autonomous vehicles, they would have been called crazy or nuts or both.”
The company also said on Tuesday that as part of the effort, it planned to expand its Palo Alto center, doubling the number of employees who work there over the next year, from the current 130.
Ford also said it had acquired an Israeli start-up, Saips, that specializes in computer vision, a crucial technology for self-driving cars. And the automaker announced investments in three other companies involved in major technologies for driverless vehicles.
For several years, automakers have understood that their industry is being reshaped by the use of advanced computer chips, software and sensors to develop cars designed to drive themselves. The tech companies Google and Apple have emerged as potential future competitors to automakers, while Tesla Motors has already proved a competitive threat to luxury brands like BMW and Mercedes-Benz with driver-assistance and collision-avoidance technologies.
More recently, ride-sharing service providers like Uber have raised the competitive concerns of the conventional auto industry. The ride-hailing services aim to operate fleets of driverless cars that, in the future, might provide ready transportation to anyone, making it easier for people to get around without owning a car or even having a driver’s license
A Barclays analyst, Brian Johnson, recently predicted that once autonomous vehicles are in widespread use, auto sales could fall as much as 40 percent as people rely on such services for transportation and choose not to own cars.
Mr. Fields said on Tuesday that the combination of driverless cars and ride-sharing services represented a “seismic shift” for the auto industry that would be greater than the advent of the moving production line was roughly a century ago.
“The world is changing, and it’s changing rapidly,” he said, adding that Ford now sees itself as not just a carmaker but a “mobility company.”
BMW and Mercedes-Benz are among the carmakers that have seized upon the concept of “transportation as a service,” as it is called, by starting ride-sharing services of their own. General Motors has teamed up with, and bought a stake in, Lyft, the main rival of Uber.
GM and Lyft plan to have driverless vehicles operating in tests within a year. Initially, at least, those tests will be conducted with a driver in the car to take control from the self-driving technology, if necessary.
Even some auto suppliers are focusing on ride-hailing services and driverless cars. This month, the components maker Delphi announced that it was working with the government of Singapore to develop a ride service to shuttle people to and from mass transit stations in the country’s business district.
Even though Ford has committed itself to a date for a commercial introduction of its driverless cars, several questions remain about how it will move forward, said Michelle Krebs, an analyst with AutoTrader.
For example, Ford does not have a ride-sharing partner as G.M. does in Lyft, Ms. Krebs said.
In a research note on Tuesday, Mr. Johnson noted that it remained unclear how auto companies would make money from ride-sharing services.
“These are a lot of promises, but we don’t yet know how they are going to evolve,” Ms. Krebs said. “There are still missing pieces.”
One of the investments Ford announced on Tuesday was a $75 million stake in Velodyne, which makes sensors that use lidar, a kind of radar based on laser beams. The Chinese internet company Baidu said it was making a comparable investment in Velodyne.
Ford also said it had made investments in Nirenberg Neuroscience, which is also developing machine vision technology, and Civil Maps, a start-up that is developing 3D digital maps for use by automated vehicles. Ford did not disclose the amount it invested in Nirenberg or Civil Maps.