Ford Autonomy Chief Outlines Plan for Self-Driving Commercial Van

February 15, 2018 by Ryan ZumMallen

Ford Motor Co. has big plans for autonomous commercial vehicles.

The automaker promised to deliver a fully self-driving vehicle in 2021 for use in commercial applications. That means it has to be tough and serve a range of functions. Ford’s partnerships with Domino’s Pizza and the ride-sharing service Lyft also could become part of the vehicle strategy.

Chris Brewer, chief engineer of Ford’s autonomous projects

Chris Brewer, chief engineer of Ford’s autonomous projects

To develop the futuristic technology Ford looked inward to Chris Brewer, an engineer who was previously responsible for the Explorer SUV, F-Series pickups and Transit commercial van. Brewer sat down with during the 2018 Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas to discuss the automaker’s plan for its autonomous vehicle program. Here is an edited version of the conversation.

When did you transition from trucks to autonomous cars?

I came over about two years ago. I was working on the F-150, we just finished, and they asked me if I’d like to work in the autonomous vehicles group. I said, Heck yes.

What’s your position now?

I am the chief engineer for autonomous vehicle programs. We haven’t announced what we’re working on officially other than it’s a commercial rig product, which fits nicely with my prior work on pickup trucks, vans and the like.

Is this commercial project the next extension of Ford’s autonomous technology?

Right. We’ve aimed specifically at moving people or goods with commercial-grade quality. A high-mileage, long-life type of product. The products we have running around like an F-150, Super Duty or van will typically be in service for 10 years and put up 200,000-plus miles. Not too many of our vehicles are leased. Most are bought by the final customer, and they’ll own it for the life of the product. So we’ve got to make sure the product is really well-suited so they will run the product into the ground.

Could this vehicle incorporate a range of different uses from ride sharing to delivery?

It could be ride sharing like an Uber or Lyft. Or we’ve talked about running some food experiments with Domino’s. Postmates literally delivers anything anywhere, so it could be small parcels, groceries, food from a restaurant and so on.

Why is a commercial application the right step for autonomous technology?

Quite frankly, the cost of the technology is not cheap. If you were willing to fork over enough money to buy the product you probably wouldn’t do it because it’s what we call Level 4 capable — it can drive in a certain geo-fenced area. It can’t go anywhere, any time. And right now the cost of the technology is actually more than the cost of the vehicle. So our plan is to launch it in 2021, build up the volume, scale it, get the cost of the technology down, then democratize it across our lineup.

And commercial might work because you can bring in external partners?

We’re going to initially own the vehicles and sell time on [them]. Our goal is to literally run the heck out of the vehicle. Suppose you’re forking over tens of thousands of dollars but you only use it five percent of the time — I’ll sell you your five percent and they sell it to someone else and they sell it to a third party. One of the things we want to do is work with businesses, whether they’re small businesses or big businesses, to provide this service in an affordable manner.

Autonomous vehicles have the potential to assist people without transportation or who are living with disabilities — is that something that will come further down the line?

We don’t know yet. A lot of times, even if you have a car that drives itself, someone who’s impaired may need help getting into the vehicle. Right now the vehicle won’t do that for you. A lot of folks may not be able to enter the vehicle without some kind of assistance. I do see a day where we’re offering rides to people who can no longer drive but they’re still capable of getting in the car and opening and closing the door. I think that’s a perfect way of serving the community. That’s something we see down the line.

Everyone’s in a race to figure this out. When are regulators going to set standards?

We’re part of the 5G Automotive Association, where we work with the government and others to accomplish standards. These are companies that want to work together because they know it’s in everyone’s best interests. We’re in another consortium [the Self-Driving Coalition for Safer Streets] with traditional automakers as well as companies such as Uber and Google to talk to the federal government about rule-making around autonomous vehicles.

It is a race. In fact the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has done a pretty nice job of putting out some guidelines for what they think we should do. I feel pretty good about it. There’s a lot of interest in Europe, China and Southeast Asia, so the governments are in a little bit of a race as well. In fact, you see it a lot with states. They all view it as an opportunity to bring technology and jobs to their particular locale, and I think they’re right about that.

When you see new things come out on the F-Series do you get nostalgic?

Thirty miles per gallon on the F-150 diesel! I was involved with that, and I’m very happy about it. I do kind of miss it, but I’m still part of Ford Motor Company. It will always feel like a part of me.

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