Kiwi interest in driver-less taxi plans

Local reps for Ford and Volvo have expressed thought about the brands’ autonomous driving ambitions.

LOCAL distributors for car brands making big autonomous driving news have expressed their own views of the potentials.

Volvo and Ford have announced projects that would realise foremost as automated taxis, the so-called ‘Johnny Cab’ market (named after the robot taxi that appeared in the 1990 film Total Recall).

Ford’s ambition is to deliver, by 2011, a high-volume car that dispenses with all driver controls – a steering wheel, brake and throttle pedals - for ride-sharing or ride-hailing operations. It has 30 Ford Fusion – Mondeo, in this market - cars dedicated to the programme and will treble that fleet, and also double the project’s workforce, within a year.

Volvo’s ambition for a not-so-distant world where fewer people might own cars also looks in the same direction; in a partnership Ford has shunned. This being with Uber. The personal transport upstart has made no secret of its plans to swap human drivers for driverless cars and had been thought, prior to the announcement, to have hired driverless technology specialists, and to have begun testing autonomous cars. Now it seems set to buy Volvos.

Volvo and Uber have invested $300 million into yielding a "base car" that each company can use for developing and implementing their own autonomous vehicle technologies. For now that vehicle is the XC90, it’s kingpin sports utility; some rigged for self-driving activity will go into use in the American city of Pittsburgh next month, where Uber users will be able to get free rides while accompanied by vehicle "supervisors" in the driver and front passenger seats (a legal requirement in case something goes terribly wrong).

How this exactly plays out for New Zealand is still subject of conjecture, however the brands’ local representatives have certainly not been shy in considering the potentials.

Coby Duggan, Volvo New Zealand national manager, says the strategic alliance with Volvo will usher a blending of revolutionary technologies.

“Volvo has a history of forming synergistic partnerships which integrate new types of technology into vehicles. This new venture will take the development of fully autonomous vehicles a stage further, and into a new segment of the transport industry.

"We are watching the international developments with interest and though there is nothing under way locally yet, we see it as something for us to explore.

"Certainly there are some possibilities for us (Volvo NZ and Uber) to work together but at this stage neither party has been in contact with the other."

Ford’s vision, meantime, truly jumps in at the deep end with intention to achieve 'level four autonomy' – that is, a vehicle enabled to driving itself on any road without any direct human input that it does not provide any means for alternate operability. The steering wheel, brake and accelerator pedals that should be redundant anyway won’t even be built into its car.

In a world where car-sharing and ride-hailing will become more predominant as fewer people bought cars in a traditional sense, Ford recognizes that enacting this scenario requires more than just provisioning a tool for the job. Regulatory frameworks and insurance need to be addressed in parallel with technology advances.

Ford New Zealand reckons the best chance – at least initially – of Kiwis copping a ride is from hitch-hiking with the closest country to show immediate interest: Australia.

Our neighbour has already has greater capability of undertaking the Smart Mobility journey and it is not being dissuaded by working in a legislative landscape that is less welcoming to operation of autonomous cars than our own, with every state seeming to have a slightly different approach.

Where Ford Australia goes, Ford NZ could at least piggy-back, a spokesman says.

“It’s a company-wide initiative and each market will vary in how it is implemented,” says Tom Clancy, communications and Government affairs manager.

“It certainly helps us to have Ford Australia, with all it research and development capability, likely to get involved – that could really assist in implementing something here, perhaps as part of their programme rather than one that was completely our own.”

The Auckland office has already undertaken in intensive study in this market and our specific tastes and trends. Central to those findings was an identification of a significant count of start-ups that look to specialize in future mobility solutions.

Most, however, appear to looking in other directions – usually electric cars - and whether there are any that have the wherewithall to require a requisite partner ability at this level is uncertain.

It’s a slightly different story in Australia, where Ford sees a new partnership with a car-sharing operator Carhood as having potential to conform to the Smart Mobility model.

Carhood’s point of difference is to allow people to share their vehicles with other members instead of paying to park them at major airports. Ford announced in July that it will supply dozens of vehicles to Carhood for its airport parking and car-sharing service in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane.

Ford headquarters’ commitment, meantime, now centres at a Research and Innovation Centre in Palo Alto, California, that was only founded 18 months ago but is now about to double in size, not only physically – with two buildings planned – but also in staff size.

Ford’s autonomous vehicle test fleet is already the largest operated by any manufacturer, but next year will treble to 90 vehicles. These will embark on autonomous driving tests in California, Arizona and Michigan.

Announcing the Smart Mobility plans in Silicon Valley, Ford president and chief executive Mark Fields said automation would define the automobile over the next decade.

“We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford’s moving assembly line did 100 years ago,” he said.

“We’re dedicated to putting on the road an autonomous vehicle that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people – not just those who can afford luxury vehicles.”

Ford global product development executive vice president Raj Nair says Ford has strategic advantage “because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world.”

To help develop the technology for its autonomous vehicle, Ford has announced investments in or collaborations with four tech companies involved in advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, LiDAR (light detection and radar) and radar and camera sensors.

Ford now has alliances with 40 such technology companies.

Volvo, meantime, says a key ingredient in its push is the Scalable Product Architecture (SPA) that underpins the current XC90, S90 and V90. Having this platform allows the maker to more quickly and cost-effectively establish a standard level of autonomous systems so that it can quickly and effectively be applied to future vehicles . SPA will “include all needed safety, redundancy, and new features required to have autonomous vehicles on the road.”

Both Uber and Volvo seem to have plenty to gain from a self-driving vehicle once it's developed. Uber will be able to operate its own fleet of self-driving cars and take in more money by eliminating the need for drivers. Volvo will have a player in the autonomous revolution game, which is a step toward its stated goal of no injuries of deaths in its cars by 2020.