SMART CARS: COMING SOON

SMART CARS: COMING SOON

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Ford Motor Company has unveiled a plan to invest more than one billion USD over the next five years in automotive artificial intelligence. Ford hopes that the investment will allow them to reach the goal of having a self-driving car aimed at commercial ride-sharing markets by 2021. Ford’s investment in Argo AI makes Ford the largest shareholder in the company.  Ford CEO Mark Fields told Reuters that the investment was in line with expected capital expenditure.  Argo AI is working to develop what Ford has termed a Virtual Driver System. This system would put them at the forefront of a highly-anticipated advancement in automotive technology. If the technology is successful, it is likely that Ford will license it to other manufacturers and companies. While Ford is now the majority shareholder in Argo AI, they are maintaining a mostly hands-off approach and allowing the company to run as it needs to. Fields was optimistic saying "They have the opportunity to run it pretty independently with a board, but because it is a separate company or subsidiary, it has the opportunity to go out and recruit with competitive compensation packages and equity"  

This investment is a new development for Ford which has been conservative in investing in experimental areas, especially when compared to rival General Motors. GM has spent one billion dollars acquiring  Silicon Valley’s Cruise Automation another contender in the artificial intelligence race. This investment comes along with a purchase of 9% stake in Lyft at five hundred million dollars. Lyft and Uber are likely to engage in their own AI war as Uber rushes to develop self-driving cars to replace their drivers.

Argo AI is not the only investment that Ford has made in this developing arena. Ford has also invested seventy-five million dollars in Velodyne, a manufacturer of laser-based lidar sensing systems that are likely to play a critical role in the future of automotive AI. As GM, Ford, Uber, and Lyft look to make sci-fi a reality, the question remains - are people ready?

Part of the praise due to the titans of industry, or any field for that matter, is their willingness to push boundaries. However, AI technology is still in a very nascent stage, and according to IEEE, most riders don’t feel comfortable riding in a vehicle without a driver. AAA’s survey showed the number may be as high as three in four drivers. “With the rapid advancement towards autonomous vehicles, American drivers may be hesitant to give up full control. What Americans may not realize is that the building blocks towards self-driving cars are already in today’s vehicles and the technology is constantly improving and well-trusted by those who have experienced it,” said John Nielsen AAA’s managing director of Automotive Engineering and Repair. While the investment is being made to create the technology, it may take some time for the average consumer to be willing to trust, let alone pay for the new cars.

Hesitation in the acceptance of the new technology may create some short-term issues for the firms that have invested heavily in the new technologies. The cars must prove their quality and safety and pass through regulatory screenings. Trust will likely be gained slowly with the consumer base. Proving that the cars are safer than human drivers would be a major step toward gaining acceptance. It is likely though that even in a perfect situation, there will be people who prefer a human behind the wheel. Even the smartest AI we can fathom still lacks much of the emotional cognizance that is an essential part of intelligence. It will be interesting to watch where this technology goes. If Uber decides to go fully automated, they should be prepared for rival companies to emerge focused on delivering a human touch. There is still a large distrust of AI systems. Years of Hollywood messaging and even the scientific community have conditioned us to be suspicious of AIs. This will not go away overnight. A marketing war must complement the developments in technology.

The good news for companies that have invested heavily in automotive AI is that most drivers can become comfortable with it after exposure. The rate of acceptance will vary in different places but that is a reason to be optimistic for companies like Ford and Uber. The burden is still on the inventors to prove that their technology is reliable and safe, or safer than human drivers. Once that is proven, driverless cars will cease to be fiction and instead become fact.

Follow this author on Twitter @realrobertowens

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