Here's How Ford Plans to Make Money Off Self-Driving Cars

Ford is tackling the inborn aspects of deploying self-driving cars en masse.

Ford

Ford plans to launch a production self-driving car in 2021, and that said car will be used for ride-hailing and delivery services. As the clock ticks away toward that deadline, it seems to the Blue Oval is sticking to that plan. In a blog post, Ford Autonomous Vehicles CEO Sherif Marakby elaborated a bit on how the automaker plans to turn autonomous-driving tech into a profitable business.

"Self-driving vehicles are simply an enabler for a new kind of business we're building at Ford," Marakby wrote. Like many other automakers, Ford wants to move beyond merely selling cars to offering services. Given the explosive growth of ride-hailing services like Uber and Lyft, it's easy to see why Ford is interested. Services also offer potentially greater profit margins than building cars, which requires a heavy capital investment upfront.

Ford is taking a more holistic approach to autonomous driving than its competitors. Several automakers, as well as tech companies like Uber and Waymo, are working on self-driving cars. But in addition to developing the cars itself, Ford is working on the more mundane things needed to transform the nascent technology into something that can make money.

Test vehicles are currently operating on public streets in places like Ford's hometown of Dearborn, Michigan; Miami, and Washington, D.C. The testing is about more than just ensuring self-driving cars don't crash, though. Ford is working with Domino's, Postmates, and Walmart on pilot delivery services, and trying to solve any potential problems with using autonomous cars in this role along the way. For example, Ford deployed fake self-driving cars just to see how customers would react to a human-free delivery service.

Partnerships with other companies will provide an outlet for Ford's autonomous-driving tech, but the automaker could also operate services of its own. The company has relevant experience from its Chariot shuttle service and GoRide medical transportation service, Marakby noted. 

Whether it's delivering groceries or taking people to doctor's appointments, Marakby said Ford's "Transportation Mobility Cloud" software will be key. The software can not only coordinate the movements of fleets of vehicles but also do things like order coffee from cars. This concept, which is already being exploited by General Motors with its Marketplace feature, provides yet another way for automakers to make money off self-driving cars.

"We are beginning to explore collaborations across entertainment, audio, gaming, touring, and commerce fields, so that we can build our entire customer experience before, during, and after their vehicle rides," Marakby wrote.

The company that deploys the first self-driving cars on a commercial scale will get plenty of glory, but it may not be the long-term winner. Don't be fooled by talk of increased safety and free time: companies are pursuing autonomous-driving tech because they believe they can make money off it. Ford is just being more upfront about how it expects to do that.

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