Ford is bringing its autonomous vehicles to Austin, Texas, the company announced on Wednesday. Ford will start by mapping the streets of downtown Austin this November. Eventually, the size of the fleet and the geographic area will grow until Ford is ready to launch an autonomous taxi and delivery service at scale in 2021, the company said.
The Blue Oval previously named Miami and Washington, DC as its two initial test cities. The company is also testing its cars in Detroit and Pittsburgh, though it hasn’t said whether it plans to launch its taxi and delivery businesses there. None of Ford’s vehicles are fully driverless; the company keeps two safety drivers in each vehicle at all times.
Austin has a history with self-driving cars. The city served as a testing ground for Google’s original self-driving prototype, the pod-shaped Firefly. In 2015, a blind man named Steve Mahan took a 10-minute ride around Austin in the steering wheel-less Firefly vehicle.
Ford is also working on a purpose-built self-driving vehicle that it plans to unveil in 2020. Until then, the company is using hybrid Ford Fusion sedans that have been retrofitted with autonomous sensors, like cameras and LIDAR, and are powered by software developed by Argo AI, the autonomous vehicle startup based in Pittsburgh that practically no one had heard of until Ford’s own eye-popping $1 billion investment in 2017.
The news of Ford’s expanding test program comes as other automakers are dialing back expectations about when self-driving cars will go mainstream. Cruise, the autonomous division of GM, announced earlier this year that it would miss its own deadline to launch a robot taxi service in San Francisco by the end of 2019. Even Waymo CEO John Krafcik, the guy in charge of the company seen has having the most advanced technology, said last year, “Autonomy always will have some constraints.”
Ford maintains that it can still launch its commercial service in 2021. Sherif Marakby, the president and CEO of Ford’s autonomous division, said while other companies set deadlines that were “too aggressive and unrealistic,” Ford always stuck with its 2021 plan. “It’s going to take a few more years,” he said in a call with reporters.
Being the name behind the best-selling vehicle in the US — the Ford F-150 — isn’t enough for a global automaker that hopes to survive in a future defined by trade wars and climate change. Ford is trying to make a name for itself in the “mobility” space, investing in ride-sharing, bike-sharing, and even scooter-sharing programs. The auto giant acquired electric scooter startup Spin for a reported $100 million last year. It has also see some of its investments go belly-up, like its microtransit service Chariot, which shuttered earlier this year.
Ford isn’t going it alone on self-driving cars, however. The company announced a major partnership with Volkswagen earlier this year. As part of the deal, VW will invest a whopping $2.6 billion in Argo AI. In addition, Ford will gain access to VW’s electric-vehicle MEB platform. The company says it will use the platform to design and build at least one high-volume fully electric vehicle in Europe starting in 2023.