Ford is bringing its fleet of self-driving cars to the neon-splashed streets of Miami to test out its future commercial plans for robot cars, which include ride-hailing and deliveries, the automaker announced today.
With a pipe organ-style suit of sensors on the roof and the Spanish word for “research” emblazoned below the grille, Ford says its self-driving cars bring the promise of safer streets and more efficient deliveries — and probably more than a few fender benders. The cars arrived last week, and testing is already underway.
Initially, Ford will test two types of autonomous cars in Miami: the aforementioned blue-and-white research vehicles with hardware and software technology by Argo, a self-driving startup backed by Ford; and self-driving delivery cars that Ford last deployed in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in partnership with Domino’s Pizza. Ford said it hoped to eventually have “thousands” of self-driving cars deployed in the city.
But for now, the company won’t say exactly how many it has prowling the streets of North Beach and the surrounding communities. The Argo research cars are currently driving all over the city in autonomous mode while collecting high-definition mapping data. Meanwhile, the Domino’s car (there is only one at the moment) is being operated by a human driver while the company studies how customers interact with an autonomous delivery vehicle. Safety drivers will remain behind the wheel of all of Ford’s autonomous vehicles for the time being, although the company is currently building an AV without traditional controls like pedals and steering wheels, which it plans to release by 2021.
Ford has also built a service center for its autonomous vehicles close to downtown Miami. The new terminal will serve as a home base for Ford’s cars when they aren’t out on the streets and a place where they can transfer data and have their sensors cleaned and calibrated.
Miami will also serve as a testbed for Ford’s forthcoming Transportation Mobility Cloud, an open-sourced platform for cities and other transportation partners that it announced last month at CES. Companies that have announced partnerships with Ford, like Lyft and Postmates, will soon be able to provide ride-hailing trips and deliveries using Ford’s self-driving cars, said Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president for autonomous vehicles and electrification.
“We’re really excited that we’re doing this already,” Marakby said in a call with reporters. “We’re not announcing that we’re going to the first city, we’re announcing that we are in the first city. We have a depot. We’re mapping the city. And we’re operating a business. So we’re very excited, and we feel that it does take all of these elements coming together and starting the development in parallel is absolutely the right thing to do, and we feel that differentiates Ford from the others.”
The automaker has been lagging slightly in the race to develop self-driving cars — not necessarily for lack of effort, but because its competitors have moved much more aggressively in the last year. Waymo, the self-driving unit of Google parent Alphabet, is gearing up to launch a driverless ride-hailing service in Phoenix, while GM’s Cruise has said it would launch its own robot taxi service in San Francisco. Uber has self-driving cars picking up passengers in Pittsburgh and Phoenix, and Lyft has teamed up with NuTonomy to launch a small ride-hailing pilot in Boston.
Last year was a challenging one for the Blue Oval, with stagnate sales numbers and awkwardly timed management shuffles. Jim Hackett replaced Mark Fields as CEO right after Ford announced a $1 billion investment in Argo. And last week, Ford president Raj Nair stepped down after admitting to “inappropriate behavior.”