Ford CEO Dials Back Expectations for Autonomous Cars Due to ‘Complex Problems’

The Blue Oval still plans to put autonomous cars into production, but their uses will be limited and somewhat pre-determined.

byStephen Edelstein|
Ford CEO Dials Back Expectations for Autonomous Cars Due to ‘Complex Problems’

Ford has been pretty bullish on self-driving cars, but the company's boss is now trying to reign in expectations. CEO Jim Hackett, who previously ran Ford's autonomous-driving division, reportedly believes too much hype has been built up around driverless vehicles.

"We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles," Hackett said in a speech at the Detroit Economic Club. He said Ford still plans to put a self-driving car into production in 2021, but that "its applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex."

Geo-fencing ensures that autonomous cars only operate in areas where the technology is up to the task. Ford will likely choose areas with sufficiently accurate digital maps to guide the cars, and where it feels confident that cars won't run into any other issues. That echoes the strategy companies like Waymo and Aptiv have followed in the deployment of their autonomous cars. It's a sensible baby step for what is still a very new technology, but it also means self-driving cars won't have as large of an impact, at least initially.

Advocates of autonomous cars believe they will dramatically increase safety, as human error is the cause of most car crashes. Additionally, companies are eager to eliminate costly human drivers from ride-hailing and delivery services and start marketing products to a captive audience of passengers. But those goals require large fleets of autonomous vehicles to replace most human-driven cars. That may take much longer under Ford's new, more conservative strategy.

Hackett's attempt to lower expectations shouldn't come as a total surprise. Ford previously said its first production self-driving car would be aimed at ride-hailing and delivery services, rather than retail buyers. That removes a heap of variables regarding how cars will be used. Ford could pick operators in areas where it feels confident that autonomous cars will perform flawlessly. It would be much harder, for example, for the company to tell individual buyers that they can't take cars to certain places because the maps aren't good enough. Fleet operators also tend to be more fastidious about maintenance than many private buyers.

Self-driving cars could eventually transform the way people get around, Hackett added. It may just take more time than originally anticipated.

"When we bring this thing to market, it's going to be really powerful," Hackett explained. "Logistics and ride structures and cities [will] all get redesigned. I won't be in charge of Ford when this is going on, but I see it clearly."