Bill Ford: The future of self-driving cars is closer than you think

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Ford Motor Co. has been making automobiles for more than a century, but only now are the company’s products on the brink of monumental changes, according to Executive Chairman Bill Ford Jr.

“The car as we know it, and how it’s used in people’s lives, is going to change really dramatically and it’s going to change fast,” said Ford.

The great-grandson of the company’s founder, Ford was in Los Angeles on Tuesday speaking at the annual Milken Global Conference about the future of his company and the transportation industry.


“Here we stand on the cusp of a series of revolutions,” Ford said. “The car is really becoming a rolling group of sensors.”

In addition to sweeping changes to how the car moves -- electric power, hybrid drivetrains, and alternative fuels such as hydrogen -- cars will soon drive themselves and communicate with one another. And it will all happen sooner than you might guess.

A lot of the elements are already in today’s vehicles, Ford said, pointing out cars that can parallel-park themselves and cruise-control systems that can automatically maintain distance from the car ahead.

Over the next five years, automakers will quickly add more auto-driving functions.

When California passed a law in 2012 allowing autonomous vehicles on its streets, a provision required that a licensed, capable driver be sitting in the driver’s seat in the event of any system failure.

In addition to California, states such as Florida and Nevada have passed laws allowing self-driving vehicles on public roads. This has led automakers like Toyota and Lexus, Volkswagen and General Motors to begin developing and testing fully autonomous vehicles.

Ford echoed the concern for safety, saying the makers of self-driving cars needed to figure out how to best give control back to the driver when needed.


“Those are the kind of later-stage things that are going to be tough to deal with,” Ford said, noting that he was confident that a user-friendly approach would be found.

The future of transportation also needs to take into account the world’s population growth. Currently, the population is around 7 billion -- with about 1 billion cars on the road.

By 2050, the population is expected to be around 9 billion people. With most of this growth happening in major cities, some 4 billion cars are expected to be on the road by then. If we continue on the path we’re on, Ford said, the result will be what he called “global gridlock.”

“How are we going to move people in an environment that looks like that?” Ford said. “That’s going to change everything for our business.”

With vastly different infrastructures in cities around the world, this presents an acute challenge for an automaker trying to anticipate how each city will tackle transportation.

Nevertheless, working on long-term solutions is necessary for his company, Ford said.

“If we don’t start imagining this future, and then start trying to help shape this future, we’re going to be left behind, because this future is going to happen with or without us,” Ford said.


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