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Ford will test self-driving cars in Washington, DC, with an emphasis on ‘equity’

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The parent company of Lincoln Motors is bringing its robot cars to the city of the Lincoln Memorial

Photo: Ford

Autonomous cars are coming to the nation’s capital. Ford announced Monday that it would begin testing its self-driving cars on the streets of Washington, DC, early next year, with a particular emphasis on “equitable deployment.”

Ford currently has vehicles on the road in DC gathering mapping data, and will begin operating those cars autonomously in the first quarter of 2019. A safety driver and a second engineer will remain in the vehicle at all times, Ford says, but the company plans to remove both when it feels confident enough in its technology. Ford has also secured a fleet terminal for its autonomous vehicles within the district. The facility 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.

Washington will be the fourth city for Ford’s AV testing, in addition to Detroit, Pittsburgh, and Miami. The automaker has said it expects to launch its commercial service of robot taxis and delivery vehicles at scale in 2021.

Photo: Ford

As for “equitable deployment,” in its negotiations with the municipal government of DC, Ford agreed to operate its vehicles in all eight of Washington’s neighborhoods, or “wards,” in an effort to reach different types of residents as it nears a commercial launch of its self-driving service. That means using lidar to capture the rainbow-hued outlines of the motorcades and monuments that line the streets of Washington’s tourists sections, as well as the dilapidated strip malls and crumbling townhouses in the city’s less-well-off neighborhoods. Ford will also spend cash to train local residents for auto technician careers that could involve self-driving vehicles in the future.

“Whether it’s transportation to work where they didn’t have that ability in the past, or actually operating businesses in those areas that could help other businesses grow,” Sherif Marakby, president and CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, told The Verge. “Those are the factors that could help the people that live in those areas.”

There will certainly be a symbolic quality to the sight of Ford’s self-driving cars plodding past such recognizable structures as the Washington Monument and the US Capitol Building (see above). Legislation to accelerate the deployment of self-driving cars on public roads is currently stalled in Congress, with Democrats in the Senate objecting to provisions to pre-empt local laws. Meanwhile, the Department of Transportation has taken a laissez-faire approach to regulating these new vehicles in the release of its policy guidance. It’s too early to tell, but it’s possible the presence of self-driving cars on the Hill and beyond could affect the tenor of the debate.

But first, Ford needs to build a working map of the city. That includes gathering data on Washington’s uniquely complicated topography, which includes traffic circles, fractured angle merges, and other traffic idiosyncrasies from the centuries of road planning. The company is working with Argo, the self-driving startup that Ford is backing with a $1 billion investment.

Photo: Ford

Washington’s local government spoke to several driverless operators, including Uber, before settling on Ford, according to The Washington Post. A self-driving Uber killed a pedestrian in Arizona earlier this year, leading the company to halt its testing and scale back its driverless program significantly. Other reports have emerged recently of crashes caused by self-driving cars — some minor, others not so much — that have raised questions about the readiness of the technology.

When asked whether there have been any crashes involving a Ford self-driving vehicle he’d be willing to disclose, Marakby said he couldn’t think of any. “I’m not aware of any,” he said, recounting the steps that Ford takes — simulation testing, proving ground testing, and then public road testing — to validate its self-driving technology.

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. Ford has said it’s more interested in safety than being first to market.

“The steps that Argo and Ford take... has been, let me just put it this way, conservative,” Marakby added, “but important in this case.”