Ford Shifts Self-Driving Car Effort Out of Research Lab

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Ford Motor Co. is moving the development of its self-driving cars from the research lab to its advanced engineering operations, a sign that it’s getting closer to putting an autonomous auto on the road.

“For us, autonomous vehicles are about making the technology accessible to everyone, just as Henry Ford did with the automobile a century ago,” Raj Nair, group vice president of global product development, said Tuesday in a statement from Ford’s research lab in Palo Alto, California. “Our team is now working to make this technology feasible for production.”

Ford didn’t say when it expected to begin selling a car that can drive itself, though Chief Executive Officer Mark Fields has said the auto industry will have a fully autonomous auto on the road by 2020. Moving Ford’s driverless car from a research project to an advanced engineering effort is an important step toward bringing a model to market, Nair said. The next and final development stage is establishing a product program with a specific on-sale date.

Automakers are racing to develop self-driving cars and overhaul their business models for a world where mobility is being redefined as most of the global population crowds into large megacities during the next two decades. Driverless cars that move in harmony may become essential to keep people and goods flowing safely and efficiently.

Ford has been working on two tracks, developing autonomous cars while continuing to crank out the sport utility vehicles and pickups that make money now.

Car Sharing

The automaker on Tuesday also said it’s rolling out a car-sharing test program that helps owners of its models rent out their cars when they’re not using them. The program, through the Ford Credit unit, is being offered in six U.S. cities and London.

“There’s no question our business model will look very different in the future than it does today,” Executive Chairman Bill Ford said in an interview last month. “We need intellectual horsepower aimed at charting a path through this very disruptive future.”

The market for autonomous technology will grow to $42 billion by 2025 and self-driving cars may account for a quarter of global auto sales by 2035, according to Boston Consulting Group. By 2017, partially autonomous vehicles that can operate in auto-pilot mode, park themselves and change lanes automatically will become available in “large numbers,” according to the firm’s April report entitled “Revolution in the Driver’s Seat.”

U.S. auto sales may drop about 40 percent in the next 25 years because of shared driverless cars, forcing mass-market producers such as General Motors Co. and Ford to slash output, according to a May report by Brian Johnson, a Barclays analyst.

Large-volume automakers “would need to shrink dramatically to survive,” Johnson wrote. “GM and Ford would need to reduce North American production by up to 68 percent and 58 percent, respectively.”

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