On Friday, Ford Motor Company announced that it will invest $1 billion to develop a virtual driver system for a self-driving vehicle that will be commercialized in 2021. Ford is teaming up with Argo Al, a Pittsburgh startup company led by former Google and Uber executives who specialize in the fields of robotics and artificial intelligence. The virtual driver system will use machine learning, a branch of artificial intelligence that improves with experience, to act as the brain of Ford’s self-driving vehicle. The technology will deliver SAE Level 4 driving automation, meaning the driver will simply turn on the automatic driving system and the vehicle will handle all driving functions and monitor most, but not all, driving scenarios.
The SAE International Standard defines six levels of driving automation. In the first three levels, the driver is responsible for monitoring surroundings, traffic, road conditions, and the weather. The vast majority of vehicles on the market today have Level 0 autonomy, meaning the driver has full control of every aspect of the vehicle at all times. Even vehicles that are equipped with warning systems such as blind-spot or collision warnings are classified as Level 0. Vehicles with Level 1 autonomy are equipped with a single piece of self-driving technology such as an emergency braking system that will automatically brake if a collision is imminent and the driver has failed to apply the brakes.
With its investment, Ford has joined several other automakers who are working towards developing their own self-driving vehicles. According to some estimates, there could be as many as 10 million cars with self-driving features on the road by 2020. As self-driving vehicle technology continues to develop, state lawmakers are facing mounting pressure to regulate autonomous vehicles. In 2016, twenty states introduced legislation regarding autonomous vehicles. However, Texas was not among these states. Earlier this year, the U.S. National Highway Traffic Safety Administration cleared Tesla Motors Inc.’s autopilot system of fault in a fatal 2016 crash and declined to issue a recall after finding that the owner of the Tesla ignored the manufacturer’s warnings to maintain control even while using the driver-assist function. At a minimum, the fatal crash serves as a reminder that autonomous vehicles still have a way to go before they are deemed a safer alternative to traditional driver-operated vehicles.