Ford Motor Co. is exploring how to leverage its autonomous vehicle research by developing driverless technology for use by delivery services.

The push is part of an initiative announced by the automaker last week to have a fully self-driving car— without a steering wheel or driver controls — ready for ride-hailing companies by 2021.

Ford also said it plans to double the size of its Palo Alto, Calif., research center and invest in Velodyne, a company that makes sensors used by autonomous vehicles to paint a digital picture of their surroundings.

“We believe autonomous vehicles and the automation of the driver will be a significant change, perhaps as significant as the moving assembly line,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s chief technology officer and director of global product development.

Ford Smart Mobility

Raj Nair (Photo: Ford)

Nair said Ford is looking to use its driverless technology for several potential markets, including both car-sharing and delivery services. He would not provide specific details, including what product lines could be used, but these could include models such as the C-Max crossover, as well as both the Transit Connect and larger Transit vans that are already used heavily by small businesses and delivery fleets.

Although fully driverless vehicles will be significantly more expensive than conventional passenger cars or delivery vans, “if you look at the business structure, the highest cost is the driver,” Nair said. “So it makes a lot of business sense if you can automate the driver.”

Vehicles that can drive robotically “certainly would change the economics of transportation,” said Yossi Sheffi, director of the MIT Center for Transportation & Logistics.

The pressure to eliminate drivers is only likely to grow as the technology develops, said Dale Rogers, a professor of logistics and supply chain management at Arizona State University.

One of the big problems with the trucking industry is a shortage of drivers,” an issue Rogers said will worsen because “millennials don’t want to be drivers.”

Delivery services, including UPS and FedEx, have shown interest in autonomous vehicle technology, said Cathy Roberson, head analyst for consulting firm Logistics Trends and Insights.

Earlier this year, the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office awarded Google a patent for a self-driving delivery truck.

The patent documents depict a typical delivery truck — similar to what UPS and FedEx use — with lockers on the outside. The vehicle would robotically drive to a home or office and digitally signal the recipient that a package had arrived. The individual would walk out to the van, punch a code into the locker’s keypad and remove the package.

But that strategy might not be well received by customers, especially in a place like Michigan in the middle of winter, Sheffi said.

Once a vehicle arrives at its destination, there needs to be some way to deliver or pick up packages.

“We’d have to figure out how this would work because a big part of the service has drivers getting in and out of the vehicle,” Rogers said.

The industry is looking at other methods of moving a package from the truck to the doorstep.

“I could see using a robot or a drone,” Roberson said.

Amazon, UPS and DHL all are exploring using drones to make deliveries.

Cincinnati-based Workhorse Group, an electric truck maker and UPS vendor, is developing a method to launch delivery drones from the roof of its trucks, saving drivers the time, effort and battery power of visiting each doorstep in a neighborhood.

Ford has set an ambitious time line for developing fully autonomous delivery trucks and passenger cars, analysts said. It is likely to face delays getting the vehicles into service because of insurance, safety and cybersecurity hurdles.

Five years is “just not that far away,” and there are plenty of technical obstacles to overcome before a vehicle — whether a passenger car or a delivery van — could run safely down public roads, Rogers said.

Even if the technology were ready, Sheffi said, both the public and government regulators might not be.

“It’s too scary for many people and will take a lot of time doing tests before it will be accepted,” Rogers said.

Sheffi echoed that concern, pointing to the problems that have been experienced by Google’s prototype autonomous vehicles. They’ve been involved in more than a dozen accidents so far, mostly rear-end incidents. The Google vehicles were hit from behind after they stopped suddenly rather than driving through a yellow light in heavy traffic.

“Drivers, with years of experience, understand what to do. Machines don’t,” he said, noting that the only accident that was blamed on a Google prototype involved a vehicle that was programmed to operate more like a human driver. It wound up sideswiping a bus.

That is why automakers developing autonomous driving technology, including Nissan, General Motors and Mercedes-Benz, have said human drivers will need to remain actively involved in the driving process, even if just serving as backup. But Ford’s Nair takes the opposing viewpoint, arguing that the driver needs to be eliminated entirely.

The longer a human sits behind the wheel doing nothing, the riskier it gets, he told Trucks.com.

“You lose driver awareness, lose driver situational response,” he said. “You lose the ability for a human to respond in a timely manner.”

As the Ford announcement and Google patent  demonstrate, the industry is pushing fast to bring various forms of autonomous vehicle technologies to market. That now includes a new partnership between automotive industry supplier Delphi Automotive and Tel Aviv-based Mobileye NV.

The two companies on Tuesday announced plans to demonstrate an advanced autonomous vehicle system at the Consumer Electronics Show in January. It will be capable of both Level 4, or hands-free, driving and even more advanced Level 5 fully driverless operation. The new partners hope to beat Ford to market by having their new technology available to automotive customers by 2019.

About The Author

Paul A. Eisenstein

Paul A. Eisenstein is a veteran journalist has been covering the automotive industry since 1979. In addition to Trucks.com, he writes for the Detroit Bureau. He can be found on Twitter: @DetroitBureau.