The black Ford Fusion hybrid with a tiara of laser sensors looped twice through a four-mile stretch of a changing Washington, passing a trendy food hall and a sagging strip mall as it vacuumed up data to build a citywide network of self-driving cars.
The map engineers inside last week were part of an advance team working with Ford, which will announce on Monday that it plans to deploy a driverless fleet that will carry customers and make deliveries for businesses across all corners of the nation’s capital.
Automakers and technology companies touting safety and economic benefits from autonomous vehicles are racing to improve their systems and carve out real estate across the country, putting down stakes in cities from San Francisco to Boston as public proving grounds for technologies that remain distrusted by many.
Ford will begin testing self-driving cars in the District early next year and plans to launch commercially in Washington, Miami and other unnamed cities starting in 2021. That’s a longer timeline than some other firms and communities, a reality leaders from Ford and the District both described as beneficial.
“We realized very quickly that we can launch a small number of cars in an area right away — but then not create a healthy business that helps the city,” said Sherif Marakby, president and chief executive of Ford Autonomous Vehicles.
Waymo, the company formed out of Google’s nearly decade-old self-driving car project, is already carrying selected families and transit employees in self-driving minivans in the Phoenix area, along with safety chaperones in the back seat. The company said it plans to open a driverless service to the public in parts of Arizona by year’s end.
Brian Kenner, the District’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he’s pleased “frankly, to not be the tip of the spear, full on, in autonomous vehicles.”
District officials met with counterparts from Pittsburgh and representatives from Uber, as part of a multicity effort to share experiences, Kenner said. After a driverless Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Ariz., in March, both Pittsburgh and Uber “have taken at least a half step back” in their aggressive push to see the technology deployed, he added.
“We appreciate being sort of in the 2.0 wave around this,” Kenner said.
Federal policy on driverless vehicles has been largely laissez-faire. There are no federal safety standards for the technology or requirements that companies certify, via third parties or on their own, that their self-driving systems are safe.
Carmakers and tech companies have pushed Congress to bar states and localities from regulating self-driving cars themselves, saying they need to stop a “patchwork” of regulations that would stymie innovation.
Ford said the District’s openness to driverless operations gave Washington an advantage over other less-welcoming cities. Current city law requires a backup safety driver in autonomous cars, though officials said they would work, in coordination with Ford, to update those and other rules.
Ford will employ the same rigor the company has used over the past century to ensure that its driverless technology is safe, Marakby said.
Last week, the mapping specialists from Argo AI, a self-driving start-up that Ford is backing with a $1 billion investment, drove the autonomous Ford Fusion, in manual mode, through Northeast Washington.
With air blasting to keep the computers cool, they drove past Gallaudet University, near Union Market, and through a treacherous five-prong intersection known as the Starburst that includes a streetcar line.
Using nine cameras and a pair of lidar units, which make precise measurements using laser beams, they recorded roads, curbs and streetlights, as well as an electric Jump bike buzzing down a sidewalk and a jack-o-lantern snowman swaying in a rowhouse yard.
It was like capturing a snow globe of data each moment they moved through the city. All those 3-D snapshots will be refined, augmented and used by the driverless car to place itself in the world.
Making sure it does so safely will depend on the work of people like Patrick Gray, a program manager at Argo AI, who said he sometimes looks through the windshield and sees an array of digital data points rather than the steel-and-concrete scene outside.
“It changes your perception of the world when you start understanding the way a robot car sees the world — and then how you would translate the human world to a world that the car could understand,” Gray said. “Definitely my wife hates me now, because all I do is point out weird traffic lights and interesting lane geometries. She’s just like, ‘I don’t care about that.’ ”
Beyond questions of technology are those about who stands to gain in a driverless world.
Is what’s good for Austin, Atlanta and Washington good for General Motors, Uber and Ford — and vice versa?
District officials say Ford’s work with the city will help achieve long-standing government goals.
Ford is setting up what it calls an AV Terminal — which will have racks of computer servers, break rooms for safety drivers and space for calibrating sensors — not far from a Goodwill store and Costco.
“Location matters,” Kenner said. “The physical location for this is in Ward 5. It’s in an industrial area,” where unemployment probably tops 10 percent, he said. Officials are planning ways to link residents with jobs that may emerge, including servicing the vehicles. A city working group on autonomous vehicles has also said that the District should help displaced drivers find new work.
Andrew Trueblood, another top economic development official, said Ford will be in all eight wards, including poorer communities east of the Anacostia River.
“If it can make it cheaper for someone in Ward 8 to order fresh food — food access is a major issue in some of our neighborhoods — that’s a big win,” Trueblood said, noting driverless boosters point to “drastically lower costs” for rides and deliveries.
Ford says it will run hundreds of vehicles in some cities, and more than a thousand in others, depending on demand.
The company would not disclose an expected price tag for consumers. But Ford told investors that the cost of operating a driverless transportation service would be about $1 per mile.
That’s compared with about $2.50 for an Uber; between $1.50 and 70 cents for a personal car; and 30 cents for mass transit, according to Ford’s calculations. Consumers often pay less per mile for Uber Pool and other services with multiple passengers.
Ford says it will deploy durable new vehicles built specifically for round-the-clock autonomous use. They’ll have elements of minivans, vans and trucks, and maybe streaming video, music and ads.
By doing market research and time-intensive coordination with local governments at the start, Ford will end up in more places, running more driverless services “than if we were just bringing the tech and assuming certain things, like what’s happening in the market,” Marakby said.
How Ford’s fleet — along with those of its competitors — will affect today’s traffic woes remains unclear. Driverless fans predict that fewer commuters will drive alone, while skeptics warn of empty “zombie” cars plugging up streets between gigs.
There’s also the question of Washington’s ailing Metrorail system. Uber and Lyft have already siphoned away business.
Ford says that heading off potential negative effects — and maximizing benefits — is what it will be working on with the District over the next two to three years of preparation.
“We’re keen to start working though a lot of those questions with the city,” said Matthew Raifman, a senior manager on Ford’s City Solutions team. “Regardless of what happens at the national level, the implementation of these projects is going to be city-specific.”
In the District, that means trying to design a driverless service that draws riders to Metro by targeting areas without easy access to the system, Raifman said. It also means working with city officials to help find local firms for business pilots using mock-up driverless delivery vehicles next year.
The goal is to figure out what people want to buy and sell, and how customers manage without cashiers. Ford has performed similar pilots in Miami with partners including Dominos, Postmates and local florists and dry cleaners. It has also been running autonomous tests there with two safety monitors in each car.
In Washington, a major challenge for improving transportation is the region’s spaghetti bowl of jurisdictional lines. Ford executives say there are no plans to extend self-driving service to the Maryland and Virginia suburbs, but they are open to doing so.
More broadly, Marakby said he’s sure the project will head in unexpected directions. “The reality is we don’t know exactly where we’re going to end up,” he said.
But whether it’s connecting underserved areas in the District, or helping his elderly father, who can no longer drive, get around his community, Marakby said he expects that this work will make a major contribution.
“I truly believe that, in automotive history, it’s one of the times there’s a true disruption — or I would call it opportunity — to change mobility the way that Henry Ford changed it 100 years ago.”