Ford says California’s favorable weather will allow it to expand tests. (Snow and heavy rainfall are serious challenges for fully autonomous vehicles.) A new environment provides fresh opportunities for the vehicles to experience new challenges. One unique situation will be dealing with motorcycles that are legally allowed to split lanes in the state.
Planting another flag in Silicon Valley also makes it easier to develop partnerships with the wealth of tech expertise in the area. In January, Ford opened a research and innovation center in Palo Alto, Calif., and hired mostly for the tech sector. Ford says it’s also built relationships with the University of California-Berkeley, San Jose State, Santa Clara and Carnegie Mellon.
With digital technologies being essential to the future of transportation, auto companies such as Ford need to bring on some experts that haven’t traditionally worked for car companies. These car makers are now competing with tech companies such as Google, Uber and Baidu, the Chinese search engine.
Google has 53 test vehicles and has covered 1.3 million miles in autonomous mode in Mountain View, Calif., and Austin. Uber is quietly testing in Pittsburgh, where it hired dozens of robotics experts from Carnegie Mellon this year. Baidu began testing two fully autonomous BMWs this summer. In 2014, it hired Andrew Ng, a highly regarded expert in deep learning, which is a type of artificial intelligence that’s essential for teaching vehicles to see and identify obstacles.
Ford and all other players currently appear to significantly trail Google in developing software for autonomous vehicles. However, Ford has decades of experience in car hardware.
While Ford’s permit is only for one vehicle, it says it may add more down the road. Ford’s tests in California will start with planning driving routes, which it says will include everything from highways to city streets. It will be mapping the roads — 3D maps are widely considered invaluable to guiding autonomous vehicles — and says it will drive autonomously in the second half of 2016.