The world isn’t quite ready for private ownership of autonomous vehicles, argues Graeme Whickman, president and CEO of Ford Australia and New Zealand.

Ford is aiming to have a fully autonomous vehicle on the road by 2021, but it will be a deployed as part of a commercial venture, such as shuttle, ride-hailing or car sharing service, rather than consumers buying their own driverless car outright.

Speaking during a panel on the future of mobility in Sydney this week Whickham explained as the nascent technology develops, at first it will be more economically viable to serve a mass market through shared use of autonomous vehicles.

But private ownership of AVs will quickly follow as technology improves and costs come down, he added, similar to how electric vehicles have become more affordable and more reliable.

“I think the ultimate aim is to be able to buy AVs for the masses. I think there’s a step into it, and I think at the same time the world is not necessarily ready for private ownership as it stands right now,” Wickham said.

Regulatory bodies, insurance companies and the public need to be onboard before a fleet of driverless cars take to the roads, he said.

“One company cannot dictate the terms of mobility in any country because it is going to be a private and public partnership. There will be an industry answer and a regulatory answer that will drive that. We are one stakeholder in an array of stakeholders in Australia,” Wickham said.

“We will be first to the party from an industry point of view but we are reliant on public opinion and regulatory bodies. The benefit for us is we will be able to pull from the global portfolio, so we will be able to follow fast but the infrastructure and the framework all needs to exist in this market before any company can engage.”

In the meantime, Ford is transforming its business to be both an automotive and mobility company.

In December 2016, Ford announced an increased Australian R&D investment to $450 million in 2017 to support increased vehicle development programs. By this year, Ford will have a nearly 2,000 person strong team in Australia, including 1,750 engineers, designers and technicians.

The company has also raised $300,000 to expand student robotics programs in Broadmeadows and Geelong partner schools. Ford engineers personally mentor students in these science, technology, engineering, arts and maths programs to develop and program robots for competition around the world.

A mobility revolution

Globally, Ford is preparing itself for a future where its business isn’t solely reliant on selling cars.

“We are in the grip of a mobility revolution rivalled only by the introduction of the automobile more than 100 years ago,” Wickham said. “The conventional wisdom in our organisation is we are going to see more change in the next 10 to 15 years than we have seen in the last 100 or so.”

“The mobility solutions that have served us from the last 100 years won’t serve us for the next. That’s why for Ford is transitioning to be an automotive and a mobility company.”

In 2016, Ford acquired Chariot, a San Francisco-based crowd-sourced shuttle service, which operates nearly 100 Ford Transit shuttles along 28 routes throughout San Francisco Bay Area. Chariot’s routes are crowd-sourced based on rider demand and in the future they will operate dynamically – using data algorithms to map efficient routes to best serve the real-time mobility needs of communities around the world.

Ford is also investing $1 billion during the next five years in Argo AI, to combine Ford’s autonomous vehicle development expertise with Argo AI’s robotics experience and startup speed on artificial intelligence software – all to further advance autonomous vehicles.

It’s also looking into a last mile electric scooter concept, which will deliver parcels from car to doorstep. The carbon fibre made E-Scooter concept can be accessed easily via its docking station in the boot of a Ford vehicle. Then, the owner can unfold it and ride it to their destination. An accompanying app, connected to the Ford Smart Mobility eco-system, gives the rider access to things like maps, distance to destination and the scooter’s battery life.

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