Coming to a City Near You: Test-Driving Our Autonomous Vehicle Business

By Jim Farley, Ford Executive Vice President and President, Global Markets

With the transformative potential of self-driving technology on the horizon, there are many ways we can change how our cities work for the better. To that end, we are working to verify that the technology underpinning future self-driving cars operates safely and reliably, to ensure that our self-driving vehicles are designed to deliver trusted experiences and to prove out that the business model under which they are deployed is viable.

For us, these three paths will converge this year as we begin testing self-driving vehicles in a new city — the first in which we plan to validate our autonomous vehicle business model. In partnership with Argo AI, we will expand development and testing of the technology that enables a vehicle to drive itself. And, we will conduct more research into the customer experience to help design an all-new, purpose-built self-driving vehicle.

But, it’s the new partnership platform we have just launched that excites me most because it will help us validate our self-driving business model by working with partners — like Domino’s Pizza, Lyft, and now Postmates — and reaching out to different communities and stakeholders to understand their needs, as well as how they can benefit from autonomous vehicles.

We’ll talk more about our city collaboration later this year. In the meantime, our new platform will make it easy to connect to and work with our partners, who can benefit by accessing our fleet of self-driving vehicles to serve their customers. Lyft, for example, is already testing the platform, which includes specific communications protocols that will be used to request and dispatch autonomous vehicles from our fleet for times and locations with surging customer demand, or to areas that are often underserved.

It’s through this platform that we’ll be able to deploy our fleet of autonomous vehicles. And that’s when the possibilities open up.

We want to complement human-driven ride-hailing services with our self-driving vehicles — deploying them based on need — and help our partners expand into areas that aren’t regularly served while keeping prices affordable. We want all types of businesses and organizations, including non-profit service providers and even individuals, to have equal opportunity to expand and enhance their role in the community.

With the help of our partner cities, we can also identify public transportation dead zones where people may not have a way to get to work. According to the Brookings Institution, 70 percent of jobs are not reachable by public transportation for a typical metropolitan resident in the United States. For the 30 percent of jobs that are reachable, the commute still takes an average of 90 minutes. Working with a network of service partners on our platform, we are committed to prioritizing the needs of places and residents like these by providing accessibility options with our autonomous vehicles.

In the realm of goods delivery, we want to support small and medium-size businesses who may want to take advantage of delivery services but don’t have the ability to tap into complex, expensive logistics systems. We can help small businesses that may not be able to afford a dedicated delivery vehicle, or medium-size businesses that may have a vehicle that is underutilized and therefore a burden on their operations. These types of businesses can choose to use our self-driving vehicles instead.

What this means is our fleet will be able to provide extra support to restaurants who want to deliver more during peak dinner times, as well as to a local florist who could fill additional orders with an available vehicle. Even shops that don’t offer delivery but are interested in the service as a growth opportunity can tap into the system we’re building. With our platform, we can enable local businesses to scale in ways that wouldn’t have been possible before.

This is why we’re pleased to be teaming up with Postmates and conducting pilot programs with the service this year. Like us, Postmates is on a mission to help people unlock the best of their cities by creating a reliable on-demand “anything” network — one that gives people better access to the goods and services they need in their daily lives, while also helping local businesses increase sales by reaching new customers all over town.

Additionally, we plan to expand the work we’ve started with Lyft and Domino’s, both of which are helping us design for the best possible customer experience. In our first phase of research with the team at Domino’s, for example, we found customers enjoyed the voice instructions that played over speakers mounted on the self-driving vehicle explaining how to get their pizza from the car upon arrival at their house. Many even wanted to talk back to the car, saying, “Bye,” upon its departure. That insight is helping us to design experiential elements not just for delivery modes, but for all self-driving vehicle interactions.

The truth is that autonomous vehicles have the potential to change the way cities operate, and they will affect far more people than just those looking to hail a ride. When you combine the power and reach of self-driving vehicles with a human touch, the result is tighter communities within our biggest cities, and stronger relationships between businesses and customers. By working together, we can create a future in which the full range of transportation needs within all of our communities can be met.