Ford exec points to ‘great progress’ on driverless cars

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Ford is making “great progress” towards its goal of deploying its first fully self-driving car by 2021, says the automaker’s top research executive.

But don’t expect Ford to be first.

“We don’t worry too much about where the competitors are,” Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer. “What we are worried about is how do we bring this technology to market in a way that’s a fit (for customers). And that’s what we are focused on,”

He spoke as Ford gave reporters rides in the company’s self-driving Ford Fusion test car.

Ford is relying on Argo AI — a company co-founded last year by Google car project veteran Bryan Salesky and Uber engineer Peter Rander — to take the lead on the development of the brains of its self-driving car. Ford acquired a majority stake in Argo AI in February.

“I think we are extremely well-positioned because we’ve got a technology company working with us that understands how to build the robot,” Washington said recently. “And we’ve got an automotive manufacturer underneath us ….with more than 100 years of experience of systems integration.”

Washington has been a top executive at Ford since joining the automaker in 2014 who now is taking on even more responsibility under Ford CEO Jim Hackett. At Ford, Washington oversees the automaker’s advanced research and engineering efforts and gained the additional title of chief technology officer in May.

That essentially gives Washington oversight of all of Ford’s autonomous vehicle efforts as well as oversight of the development of a wide range of other new technology.

Before joining Ford, Washington was vice president of the Advanced Technology Center at Lockheed Martin and was one of the most prominent African-Americans in aerospace. Now he is one of  eight top executives at Ford who reports directly to Hackett.

We spoke with Washington about his new role and Ford’s autonomous vehicle programs. The following is edited for clarity and brevity, and includes some additional comments from Washington’s recent blog post on Medium, which included an announcement that Ford is creating a new artificial intelligence research team.

Question: So, tell us about your new role, and what you will now be doing at Ford?

Answer: I kind of wear two hats for the company. I am the vice president of research and advanced engineering … and that didn’t change. And with Jim Hackett coming to our company as CEO, he really wants to put an emphasis on technology and its promise for enabling us to be a great business. And so he invited me to be the chief technology officer to help drive that vision. … And so that’s a new role. And in that new role, I am really just looking to do what naturally comes to any executive who oversees a group that does that kind of technology work.”

Q: How do the various pieces of Ford’s autonomous vehicle program fit together? You have Ford’s own development team, Ford Smart Mobility and Argo AI. How does it all work?

A: We recently welcomed Sherif Marakby back to Ford (from Uber). Sherif owns autonomous vehicles at Ford, and so his job is to define for us where we are going to play in the market, and how we are going to bring autonomous vehicle technology to bear and put it into the market.

But building the autonomous vehicle has three parts — three big parts. There is the virtual driver, and that’s Argo’s job. That’s the part that replaces the driver with a robot. And that includes software and sensors.

Ford product development is building the vehicle and the autonomous vehicle team is part of that and we are working on the integration of the virtual driver into the vehicle.

Washington elaborated on the role of Ford’s internal autonomous vehicle team in his Thursday blog post on Medium:

We are announcing the creation of the robotics and artificial intelligence research team as part of Ford research and advanced engineering. This move aligns multiple disciplines under one team for a more concerted effort as we increasingly come to understand the potential for robotics and artificial intelligence. The move also serves to further advance projects we’ve already presented — such as our autonomous vehicle development program, and those we aren’t quite ready to reveal.

Q: It’s only been a few months since Ford publicly stated its goal to commercially launch a fully autonomous vehicle by 2021 but can you tell us how that effort is going and how fast you are making progress?

A: They are going great, they are absolutely going great…. They have some fabulous momentum. Bryan Salesky and Peter Rander, the co-founders of Argo AI, have attracted a really great team already. Over 100 employees are already on board at Argo. So, I am excited about the path they are on. They are making great progress.

Q: It can be difficult from the outside to really know who is leading the race to develop driverless cars. Is Ford leading? Or have you fallen behind competitors like Waymo or even GM? And how much do you think it matters right now?

A: Well I would start by saying there is so much hype out there its hard to sort through it. And you said it well when you said it kind of doesn’t matter. We don’t worry too much about where the competitors are. What we are worried about is how do we bring this technology to market in a way that’s fit. And that’s what we are focused on.