Hot on the heels of General Motors announcing last week that it would begin commercial deployment of automated mobility services in 2019, Ford has jumped into the fray with some updates on its own automated driving program. Following on from the original August 2016 announcement of its plans for a level 4 automated vehicle, Ford has confirmed that it will be a bespoke design specifically to meet the needs of commercial fleet operations. Production of the new AV will begin at Ford’s Flat Rock Assembly Plant in Michigan, but the 2020 electric crossover that was to be built there as will be moving to Mexico.
While Ford won’t be the first to the automated driving party, it is taking a distinctly different path from its crosstown rival. GM plans to launch its automated driving services with a heavily modified Chevrolet Bolt EV that was demonstrated last week on the streets of San Francisco. At this stage, GM is planning to go exclusively electric with its lineup of automated vehicles and the Bolt won’t be the only offering although it is first.
Ford hopes to leverage its experience in serving a range of special vehicle markets including taxis, police vehicles and other commercial applications. In a blog post attributed to executive vice president Jim Farley, Ford plans to make its new AV commercial grade, designed for purpose, integrated for safety and hybrid electric.
Of course Ford isn’t the only automaker that makes vehicles that fit all of those criteria. While the Dearborn automaker currently dominates the police vehicle market, there are plenty of other companies based in North America, Europe and Asia that are arguably quite competitive. German roads are full of police and taxi vehicles from Mercedes-Benz and millions of commercial use trucks, vans and cars are produced annually by most of the large manufacturers.
Ford currently lags the market in producing and selling battery electric vehicles with the low-volume, 100-mile range Focus Electric being its only offering. It’s first long-range EV, a new crossover model will arrive in 2020. Former CEO Mark Fields announced in January of this year that this new model would be built in Flat Rock, Mich. but Ford has now decided to produce it at the factory in Cuautitlan, Mexico that currently builds the Fiesta. According to Ford, that move will help that vehicle’s profitability, although it will likely raise the ire of the current administration. Depending on what happens with NAFTA, that vehicle’s profitability could be questionable anyway.
Regardless of where that BEV is produced, its crossover configuration is not optimized for how Ford sees the automated vehicle market developing. Early AVs are going to be expensive and thus will make the most sense in a variety of commercial fleet applications carrying people and goods.
Ford has already begun testing business models ranging from micro-transit with its Chariot subsidiary to food delivery. The company recently conducted an experiment in Ann Arbor, Mich with Domino’s, delivering pizzas using one of its automated development cars.
Regardless of who or what is moved, the key to a viable business will be high utilization of the vehicles, probably 20 hours a day or more.