Ford Accelerates Robotics and Artificial-Intelligence Development ""

By | June 30, 2017

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When Ford hired Jim Hackett as its new chief executive officer last month, he delivered a mandate: In a rapidly changing industry, the automaker no longer could afford to take a plodding approach to making decisions. Ford needed to move faster.

The company took a step in that direction Thursday, consolidating its artificial-intelligence and robotics researchers into a single new team that will explore using those technologies on a broad range of transportation projects.

The team will report to Randy Visintainer, Ford’s director of autonomous-vehicle development and controls. While self-driving vehicles will be a significant focus, they won’t be the lone one. Ford expects the researchers will evaluate artificial-intelligence applications for drones, mobility projects, and the technical requirements for entry into global markets

“I can tell you there’s so much going on in the world of advanced engineering, it’s imperative that we maintain a crystal-clear focus on the most important elements to help us achieve our vision of changing the way the world moves,” wrote Ken Washington, Ford’s chief technology officer, in a Medium blog post.

“This means you’ll likely see at least two separate fleets of self-driving vehicles on the road, one led by the Ford team conducting advanced research and another by Argo AI.”

—Ken Washington, Ford

Some of those visions are well documented, with the company’s recent investments in artificial-intelligence and high-definition mapping companies. Others, Washington noted, haven’t yet been revealed.

Perhaps he hints at some of the more secretive projects, saying the team will also explore “aerial robotics to enhance first- and last-mile travel.” Whether Ford will follow with plans for a contraption similar to the likes of Uber’s flying taxi or the Airbus self-flying Vahana concept, well, that’s an intriguing thought. For the time being, Ford is focused on the process of discovering and refining its next innovations.

The new research team will work with Argo AI, the Pittsburgh-based artificial-intelligence company that Ford made a $1 billion investment in last year. Argo will continue to do the bulk of the work developing the virtual driver system for Ford’s first generation of autonomous vehicles, a company spokesperson said, while the new team concentrates its efforts on more fledgling technologies.

“This means you’ll likely see at least two separate fleets of self-driving vehicles on the road—one led by the Ford team conducting advanced research, and another by Argo AI, developing and testing our virtual driver system for production,” Washington wrote.

In his introductory remarks, Hackett stressed that the company needs to match the speed of the ever-changing industry. But in terms of autonomous vehicles, the company’s approach hasn’t necessarily been lacking. An independent report issued earlier this year by Navigant Research found that Ford’s autonomous strategy and execution ranked as the most effective out of the 18 companies examined.

Ford has previously stated its intent to put Level 4 autonomous vehicles—those that never require input from drivers when the system is active but might have limitations on the conditions in which they operate—into production by 2021. Combining the AI and robotics teams may show that Hackett and others are starting to make plans for what happens beyond that first autonomous launch.

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