Google’s Waymo self-driving car company now has Ford nipping at its heels

Google has in recent months gone from pursuit of fully self-driving cars with no steering wheels or brake pedals to issuing indications that it intends to put vehicles on the road that stop short of full autonomy.

Still, the company, which just spun out its self-driving car project into its own company called Waymo, hasn’t suggested it’s abandoned efforts to produce fully self-driving technology — it just appears to have accepted that it could get left behind if it doesn’t go the incremental route as well.

And now Ford, which is testing autonomous vehicles on California roads, says it plans to put fully self-driving cars — sans steering wheels or brake pedals — into the market by 2021.

“Our engineers are unrelenting in their mission to develop a robust, capable and trustworthy virtual driver system,” Ford’s Chris Brewer, chief program engineer at the firm’s Autonomous Vehicle Development unit, said in a Jan. 28 post on Medium announcing the robot-car plan.

The Michigan automotive titan has developed a significant presence in Silicon Valley, opening up a research center in Palo Alto in early 2015 and working with UC Berkeley, Stanford University and San Jose State on self-driving technology.

Ford’s fully autonomous cars will be marketed to ride-sharing and ride-hailing services, Brewer wrote. Ford plans to use its hybrid Fusion, with an extra boost.

“A standard gas-powered car doesn’t have enough electrical power for an autonomous vehicle, so we’ve had to tap into Fusion Hybrid’s high-voltage battery pack by adding a second, independent power converter to help create two sources of power to maintain robustness,” Brewer wrote.

The Fusions undergoing testing now will evolve, Brewer said.

“For now, the car still comes with a steering wheel and pedals  —  equipment our ride-sharing vehicles ultimately won’t include,” Brewer wrote.


Photo: A Ford Fusion Hybrid car from the company’s self-driving vehicle project (courtesy of Ford)


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