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Ford announced plans this week to launch a commercial autonomous vehicle (AV) service in Austin, Texas, starting in 2021. Austin joins Washington, DC and Miami-Dade county as Ford’s target markets for its commercial AV operations. The Austin service would featurepurpose-built Ford Fusion hybrid sedans transporting people and food. Ford said these vehicles will be capable of Level 4 automation, operating “without a steering wheel, gas pedal, or break pedal within geofenced areas.”
While Ford plans to launch in three regions and offer both delivery and ride-hailing services, its competitors have taken a much more focused approach. For instance, though Waymo and GM Cruise are often considered leaders in AV development, they each maintain a compact operational footprint.
Waymo operates a commercially available AV service in Phoenix, Arizona, though it also provides rides for Alphabet employees in California. Even with the service limited to employees, Waymo became the market leader in California in terms of AV rides completed with passengers, with 4,678 trips in just under a month. This illustrates that, despite billions of dollars in investments going to AV development, operations tend to be small to keep the associated risks and costs low.
Scaling commercial operations does not necessarily make sense for many of these companies while they are still in early stages of development. GM likewise has invested billions in its AV unit, GM Cruise, which operates primarily in San Francisco. Even with concentrated operations, GM decided to delay launching a commercial AV service in July because it required more testing.
Ford’s ambitious approach of launching in three cities could prove to be extremely resource-intensive by comparison. For instance, to bring operations up to speed in Austin, Ford must undergo the labor-intensive, iterative process of using vehicle sensors to develop high-resolution 3D maps of the city’s roads.
Ford has already encountered some Austin-specific challenges, as it says the mapping process uncovered “more scooter activity than we’ve seen in other cities where we’re currently testing.” In addition to technology development challenges, Ford will also need to make location-specific investments to ensure legal compliance, recruit a workforce to manage its fleet, and market its service to the local consumers. While this is a risky approach, Ford may be willing to undertake it as a means of expediting AV development: Being in more markets could yield more logged AV trips relative to competitors.
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