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Billions And Partnerships, Ford’s Recipe For Self-Driving


The American manufacturer set out to create the vehicle of tomorrow. At the key, pharaonic investments, an army of researchers and acquisitions all over the place.

It will soon be possible to drive and swallow series at the same time. The US automaker Ford has announced in its strategic plan Ford Smart Mobility, announced in 2015, to commercialize large-scale self-leveling vehicles by 2021 (the system is able to completely replace the driver in many situations). These vehicles will first be used for VTC or carpooling.

Two years after this announcement, the auto giant has built a brave army to achieve its goals: 1,100 researchers are brainstorming to develop the Ford car of tomorrow. 200 of them are grouped together in the R & D center of the group created in Palo Alto in 2015, a team that should double by the end of 2017. The group is now carrying out tests on the roads of Arizona, from California and Michigan with some thirty Fusion Hybrid smart sedans, a number that is expected to triple in the next nine months.

The company has also secured the portfolio to develop a strategic partnership with start-up Argo.AI, an artificial intelligence specialist, founded by former Google and Uber managers. Ford announced in February 2017 a massive investment of $ 1 billion over five years in the young growth, which will enable him to hire nearly 200 people by the end of the year (the company has today). less than 10 employees). In exchange, researchers from the American nugget will develop exclusively for Ford a virtual driver 100% autonomous, able to make decisions without any human assistance. They will then be able to market this solution to third-party companies in the form of a license, “if Ford agrees,” said Ken Washington, vice president of Ford’s research and engineering division.

Because if the giant of the car is anxious to emphasize that the young shoot remains independent, it has become the shareholder (very largely) majority. “Ford has two seats on the Argo.AI board,” said Ken Washington. Sign of the strategic importance of this investment: these two seats are occupied by the CTO of the manufacturer Raj Nair and by its vice-president John Casesa, in charge of the strategy.

The young push will help Ford to remove several obstacles that stand on his way to the autonomous vehicle. “One of the things we need to do is make sure our virtual driver understands the intentions of the living things around his vehicle: will the pedestrian run to the right, to the left, or stop? In this type of inference, humans combine a great deal of visual information, and we will not have four years to deal with all this data with artificial intelligence, “says Washington.

Ford to invest $ 1 billion over five years in Argo.AI AI start-up, founded by former Google and Uber managers

To put the odds on his side, the firm did not put all his eggs in one basket. In August 2016, it announced the acquisition of Israeli machine-learning specialist applied to the field of computer vision Ships. She also signed an exclusive license agreement last year with Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC, an expert visual recognition company working with artificial neural networks.

Visual data processing is not the only subject the group needs to make progress on: “We must also be able to process sound information, for example, to detect the presence of a police car with its siren and so before the vehicle’s cameras found it, “says Ken Washington. Ford also needs to create more accurate 3D maps to help its future autonomous cars move better in space and develop more accurate, cheaper and smaller lidar sensors (these remote sensing devices work with lasers they allow to appreciate the distances between the intelligent vehicle and its environment). To solve these two problems, the manufacturer has invested in 2016 in the Civil Maps cartography specialist and in the lidar manufacturer Velodyne.

“Ford could soon build a partnership with a Chinese company that has developed a service that looks like Alexa, Amazon’s AI assistant to whom our vehicles are already connected.”

But the American does not only work on the relations that his vehicles have with their external environment. By freeing their driver from the driving that has so far dominated his attention, his autonomous cars will allow him to have other activities, such as reading, watching videos, shopping … To prepare his cars to become suppliers of services, able to communicate with their passengers, Ford begins to build partnerships. The company has integrated Amazon’s voice assistant with Ford Sync 3, the latest version of its connected multimedia system. It allows the group’s customers to shop while driving thanks to the power of their voice. They can also order the devices from their smart home (when linked to Alexa) from their vehicle.

“We are working with Amazon because the e-commerce giant believes in voice control as we do. The services that Ford will offer over the next three years will be too numerous to be piloted from a screen.” Passengers of our future vehicles Autonomous will be able to steer the digital interface of their car by talking to him naturally, as they could do with a taxi driver, “says Don Butler, executive director of the connected vehicles and services division of Ford Motor Company. “We could soon establish a partnership with a Chinese company that has developed this type of offer,” he says. 100% of cars sold by Ford today in Europe are already equipped with a voice command function.

To integrate its future autonomous vehicles into a wider ecosystem of connected objects belonging to the domain of the house, but also work or school, Ford has created in 2013 a dedicated branch, led by Don Butler. “We did not have the necessary skills internally, so we recruited the 200 employees of this team in four years, and I’m by far the oldest of my associates who are, on average, 35 years old,” the director smiled.

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