By on August 17, 2017

EcoBoost Mustang Burnout, Ford Motor Co.

If you believe certain segments of the media, we’ll soon be able to avoid the drudgery of turning a steering wheel, pressing and releasing pedals, and — gasp! — shifting gears.

The inevitable onset of self-driving vehicles, tech aficionados and urbanists tell us, will bring traffic fatalities down to zero, somehow remove all congestion from the road, and turn our lives into a never-ending sojourn of blissful tranquility. Never again will you take that aimless and unprogrammed late-night drive, just for the hell of it. Never again will you bother with buying and owning a car. Automakers will simply turn their driverless cars loose, emptying driveways while filling streets with hands-off ride-sharing pods.

Not so fast, says Ford’s newly minted CEO.

While Jim Hackett, former chairman of Ford’s mobility arm and successor to former CEO Mark Fields, sees a future in autonomous driving technology and ride-sharing, that’s not the entirety of the vision. People will still want to own cars and, yes, drive them.

Despite going full bore in the mobility direction (Ford bought — and will expand — ridesharing service Chariot and will invest over $1 billion into self-driving tech startup Argo AI), Hackett claims the future isn’t the clear image tech writers make it out to be.

In an interview with SFGate on the eve of Ford’s City of Tomorrow Symposium in San Francisco, Hackett said that as new technologies enter the mainstream, it is “going to be harder to understand why you need [conventional cars].” That certainly sounds like Ford’s on board with the Red Barchetta vision. However, when asked if Ford plans to ditch human-operated cars altogether, Hackett offered mild reassurance to traditionalists.

“We don’t know that autonomous vehicle intelligence in the future will all be delegated to a service that no one owns but everyone uses,” Hackett said. “It could play a role in vehicles that people own, vehicles that aren’t supposed to crash. You’re buying the capability because of the protection it gives you. It’s also possible it could be applied in these big, disruptive ways that of course we’re not blind to, but my bet is we don’t know.”

So, you’ll definitely maybe be able to buy and own a Mustang or F-150 in the future. With its fingers now inserted in many high-tech pies, Ford feels there’s profit to be found even if the future favors the likes of Google and Apple. Still, a robot car-only future isn’t nearly upon us, he claims.

“But the nature of the romanticism by everybody in the media about how this robot works is overextended right now. It will be a progressive thing, just like computing. If you think about a vehicle that can drive anywhere, anytime, in any circumstance, cold, rain — that’s longer than 2021. And every manufacturer will tell you that,” Hackett said.

“Ten years ago, it was about thinking of the vehicle having this independence. I think it’ll be a co-dependent model in the future. Co-dependence will actually create a safe envelope for the vehicles.”

As if to underline those last two sentences, a new Ford patent suggests future vehicles could carry a removable steering wheel and pedals. Inserted into dashboard slots and secured with locking points, the hands-on equipment would give drivers the ability to turn their autonomous cars into good ol’ fashioned jalopies when the mood hits. Sure, the connection’s digital, but at least you’re the boss, right?

Maybe the concept isn’t so hot for some, nay many readers. But the patent, as well as Hackett’s words, show the industry’s biggest automakers remain, if not in the dark, than in the gloomiest shade about what the future holds.

[Image: Ford Motor Company]

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9 Comments on “Ford CEO Sees a Future for Hands-on Driving, but a New Patent Shows the Company Hedging Its Bets...”

  • avatar

    It’s the same basic vision that a lot of futurists have for people and robots — a convergence or synergy, not a replacement (except for very menial things like vacuuming). The natural pace of the adoption curve will be further hampered by liability concerns, so I still believe we’ll only have a handful of Level 4+ autonomous cars ever. Most of them will stay around 2-3. Even the people who say they don’t care about driving will go through some kind of withdrawal.

    I guess a lot of it will depend on whether people view the utility of driving as a substitute for taking a taxi; or as an augmentation of walking/biking. I’m in the latter camp and would never buy autonomous shoes or a self-driving bike.

  • avatar

    Hmm, time to buy up the trademarks of the defunct Mad Catz company.

  • avatar

    Sadly, once fully autonomous vehicles are here (seems inevitable), the choice of utilizing one or piloting the family truckster yourself won’t be yours to make. Once the data is in that machines are better and safer than you at transporting yourself, the cost of insuring a drive-it-yourself car will be prohibitive. Could be wrong (and probably am), but sure seems a likely scenario.

  • avatar

    For a lot of people, driving is just a chore. Its time that could be better spent on Facebook or whatever, so they welcome autonomous cars with open arms. Get up, get ready, catch a power nap on the way to work, or catch up on work you were supposed to do the night before.

    For the few of us that enjoy driving, that enjoy the trip as much (or more) as the destination, I don’t feel we will see a day when we’re forced to stop driving and give into the autonomous pods. I hope and pray we don’t. Cars and driving are passions for a lot of people. The world would be a bleak place for us without individual automobiles of various sizes and styles. Vehicles designed and built for more than just getting you to your destination.

    Perhaps there will be designated lanes for autonomous cars, and hopefully there will still be a place for human-piloted vehicles as well.

    If not, BrandLoyalty will rejoice. The rest of us shall weep.

  • avatar

    “I don’t feel we will see a day when we’re forced to stop driving and give into the autonomous pods.”

    I don’t think we will be forced to stop driving, but I expect there will be areas where human operated cars will be discouraged. For example, densely populated downtown areas may eliminate parking, as autonomous cars would not need parking nearby (they would either pick up another passenger right away, or park a couple of miles away and wait until needed). That’s probably not a bad thing, as it’s not much fun to drive downtown anyway, and dynamically dispatched autonomous cars could move more people than human operated cars. But it would serve to discourage human operated cars in dense urban areas.

    I expect there will always be a niche for human operated cars, just as there is still a market for vinyl records, film cameras, and horses. I expect the current take rate for manual transmissions gives us some idea how big that niche might turn out to be…

  • avatar

    No one cares about a mobility vehicle. Consider those dollars gone. Ford needs to put some of that high strength steel in its Fusion so the bloated overweight car can go on a diet increasing mpg. That would be money well spent.

  • avatar

    Visions of the bloated passengers residing on the starship of the movie Wall-E dancing in my head. While I can see some benefit to autonomous vehicles, I also don’t ever want to totally give up the ability to row my own gears, stab the gas pedal and take the twisties with wheel firmly in my own hands.

  • avatar

    I just don’t envision autonomous cars getting it done in a CNY winter. Steep snowy roads, gauging snow drifts, spotting black ice, and even not getting caught in a shotgun blast from a salt truck. Lots of variables. Lake effect storms can dump a couple of feet with temps remaining well below freezing, the electric models may have range issues. I don’t want to get stuck behind a self-driver going 20 in a 55 either.

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