25th - 26th SEPTEMBER 2019  |  OLYMPIA

The Relentless Startup Fast-Tracking Ford’s Self-Driving Cars

Wired 05 May 2020 11:00

Google, of course, didn’t have to worry as much as Ford did about the Great Recession, which, combined with lackluster products and locked-in union contracts, sent the automaker to the brink of bankruptcy. CEO Alan Mulaly restored the company to health with a focus on good governance and consumer-focused products. But his efforts to right a listing ship didn’t account for the tsunami on the horizon. The combined effects of ride-hailing, electric propulsion, and autonomous driving looked to remake the way people used their cars—and the workings of the folks who made them.

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This was hardly the first time in its history that Ford was deaf to a changing marketplace. Henry Ford effectively created the auto industry with the Model T, which at one point gave him 60 percent of the US market. For the next two decades, though, he refused to design another car: The Model T was just fine, he believed, even as sales slumped and consumers flocked to a newcomer called General Motors, whose offerings got better year after year.

Ford’s only son, Edsel, convinced his father it was time to retool in the late 1920s. Ford finally produced the very popular Model A, but not before laying off thousands of workers amid the Great Depression and losing its dominance for good. A generation later, the company waited a decade to respond to Chevrolet’s Corvette with the Ford Mustang. This decade, it has lagged behind on electric cars, even as regulators around the world move to broaden the supply of vehicles beyond gas-powered cars and trucks.

When Mark Fields succeeded Mulally in 2014, he saw the change coming and determined that Ford would get ready for an age when being a good automaker might not be enough anymore. The shift away from the human driver threatened Ford’s core business. “The self-driving car wasn’t an enhancement of the existing technology,” John Casesa, who was then Ford’s head of strategy, said in 2018. “It was a substitute for it. It was like going from the horse to the car.”

At CES in Las Vegas in January 2015, Fields gave a keynote address declaring that Ford was no longer just an automaker. It was now, also, a “mobility company.” He opened a Silicon Valley Research and Innovation Center and hired scores of software engineers. More important, that spring, he started talking to Google’s self-driving team about collaborating by combining Ford’s hardware capabilities with Google’s software knowhow.

By December, the press was full of rumors about the deal. Later reporting by the Silicon Valley Business Journal and Automotive News portrayed Fields as eager for a high-profile deal that would impress investors and show he was serious about modernizing the aging automaker. But in January, Google walked away and instead made a deal with Fiat Chrysler to use its Pacifica minivans as its robo-mules.

When Fields returned to CES in 2016, he put on a brave face and announced that Ford would triple the number of cars it used to test its own autonomous driving tech, from 10 to 30. Eight months later, he appeared at Ford’s Silicon Valley outpost with a significantly bolder announcement: Come 2021, Ford would launch a self-driving ride-hail service in a US city, with at least hundreds of vehicles that wouldn’t have steering wheels or pedals.

The problem was that, in 2016—more than a decade after its engineers competed in Darpa’s Grand Challenge—Ford had no idea how to build a self-driving car. And if Google still hadn’t launched such a service after seven years of work, Ford stood no chance of figuring it out by 2021.

Casesa, who spearheaded this part of the business, knew Ford needed more than fresh talent. It needed a different way to structure the project and insulate it from the bureaucracy of a business that works on decades-long game plans. It needed the ability to attract top-quality engineers by offering equity and bonuses, and it needed to spend lavishly with little guidance on how much money it would make back, or when. “We weren’t a software company,” Casesa says. “So we were going to create a software company.”

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