We know autonomous vehicles are edging their way onto our roads and into our lives. And they have the potential to disrupt our transportation experiences in a big way. In theory, self-driving cars, which are impervious to distraction, will make us safer. With onboard logistics and advanced traffic mapping, they’ll make our travel more efficient. And, because we will use–and pay for–rides only when we need them, they’ll save us money, too.

What we also know is that consumers are concerned about the safety of autonomous vehicles (AVs). But even that is changing.

Forty-seven percent of American consumers feel autonomous cars will not be safe, a dramatic decrease from 74 percent in 2017, according to a 2018 study by Deloitte.

And here’s something interesting: across a variety of age groups, 63 percent surveyed say they are more likely to have confidence in a self-driving car made by a trusted brand.

Here in the Detroit region, automotive manufacturers are working hard to help consumers adjust to the concept of self-driving cars. With ambitious deployment schedules–General Motors is slated to put AVs on the road in 2019, while Ford promises 2021–it’s clear that advanced mobility innovation is strong within the very ecosystem that perfected vehicle manufacturing to scale.

Recognizing that consumers need help building higher comfort levels with AVs, both GM and Ford have published reports about the steps they’re taking to ensure safety in their self-driving products. These multi-page reports likely won’t be leisure-time reading material for the average consumer, but they do stand as a record of the approach each company is taking to win over customers to the idea of AVs.

Safety is outlined in the vountary Matter of Trust report from Ford.
Safety is outlined in the voluntary Matter of Trust report from Ford.

Changing market, changing business models

Debunking the assumption that legacy vehicle manufacturers will simply shrink away if and when the market demands fewer vehicles to transport greater numbers of people, Ford Motor Company has evolved its mission to something similar to people first, and cars second. The people-centered focus shared by many Ford spokespersons in the past year indicates an embrace of mobility in its many different forms–even if that mobility does not fit the traditional single owner model. This is apparent within Ford’s partnerships with Autonomic and Argo AI and and the work they are doing in the “city challenge” program.

Earlier this year, Ford published a 44-page safety report called “A Matter of Trust,” which gets into the weeds on how the company tests its self-driving technology using various simulations and on-road trials. But it also speaks to what we all really want to know: how we will first experience Ford self-driving vehicles in 2021.

“We wanted this to be a conversation and to come across as a conversation, and be frank, open, and honest, and share our outlook and note that we don’t have all the answers yet. That is part of the development process, and it’s meant to convey that we are on the journey together. We are developing the technology in the process of getting to our ultimate goal,” says Alan Hall, communications manager for autonomous & electric vehicles in research and advanced engineering for Ford. A partnership between Ford, their tech developers, and the customer makes for a smoother road to AV adoption, he says.

What’s clear from the report is that Ford consumers likely will not be purchasing their own AVs in 2021, the way they would purchase a new vehicle for personal use. In fact, consumers will need to unlearn the current ownership model in order to fully appreciate what AVs have to offer.

“We have to step away from the concept of owning a car, having a garage, waking up and getting in and driving to work,” Hall says. But that won’t be a stretch for urbanites accustomed to getting around using a variety of modes.

“We have to set the scene… the initial deployment will be in cities with a dense urban population. It’s the same scenario for ride-hailing, which was introduced in big cities, in New York City and in San Francisco, and in the last decade has rolled out into suburbs and even rural environments. For autonomous vehicles, it will be the same.”

Ford shares the various sensors and their use within the self-driving ecosystem.
Ford shares the various sensors and their use within the self-driving ecosystem.

Will AVs understand the “Michigan left?” What about the Michigan winter?

With questions swirling around about how AVs will operate in suboptimal weather, Ford addresses the initial limitations of the sensor technology that is still being developed. Michigan winters, for example, may make our first AVs only operational under the best weather conditions. There’s a lot to be learned about how this will all work, says Hall.

“That is why we are initially focused on areas that have more temperate weather, like Miami,” he says. Initial AVs will operate only within an Operational Design Domain, or predetermined geography, speed, weather conditions, and various other parameters. Ultimately, this will help maintain safety standards as the technology becomes more sophisticated.

For safety’s sake, colloquial driving habits are being studied and built into AVs. Just as each city’s residents operate according to behaviors that are unique to that area, AVs will need to learn the habits of drivers, pedestrians, and other road users in order to act predictably.

“Our team is test driving in Pittsburgh, Detroit, and Miami, and all the driving behaviors of current human drivers are different in those cities,” Hall says. “Our cars need to learn that so they won’t be an outlier and a nuisance among human drivers. If they stop hard or accelerate at a light or things like that, humans will take unnecessary precautions that will lead to an accident. It’s important that we research and study and test in order for our cars to behave as naturally as possible.”

Advanced technologies bridge the gap until 2021

The 2019 Ford Edge will make available some automated capabilities under the Co-Pilot360 platform. Distinct from autonomous features because they still require driver attention and input, these automated features, like adaptive cruise control, or active park assist for parallel parking, give drivers a taste of tomorrow’s tech today.

Ford outlines potential standards for vehicle-pedestrian interaction.
Ford outlines potential standards for vehicle-pedestrian interaction.

“These features require the driver to be in control, to pay attention and to have their hands on wheel. Those technologies are on the road today, are a very good way to introduce automation to customers, and get them to see and experience the benefits of it,” says Hall. “These features can improve safety and add convenience and lower the stress, particularly of parallel parking, which is one of the highest stress scenarios for a driver.”

Ford’s message: safety is taken seriously

Similar to those from GM and Waymo, Ford’s safety report is part of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration voluntary safety self assessment disclosure. It was also shared with U.S. Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao.

“We have open dialogue with NHTSA and the Department of Transportation as part of being an automaker, and we have a collaborative relationship with them,” says Hall. “One of the things the DoT advised is they’d like to see voluntary safety self-assessment reports and companies publish information about how they are develpoing AVs and how they educate the public.”

Ultimately, Ford assumes a leadership role in establishing safety standards for AVs. The report says that Ford will lead the U.S. Technical Advisory Group to develop ISO standards for safety of intended function.

“We are working with groups like SAE International, ISO, and other organizations, and also collaborating with government officials, NHTSA, and other regulatory bodies to help drive standards and regulations that will help deploy this technology in safe and robust ways,” Hall says.

All images courtesy of Ford