Ford will begin testing self-driving cars in an unnamed city

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor
Ford exhibited a self-driving delivery vehicle at CES 2018 this week – a modified Fusion. [Guardian]

The self-driving revolution is already upon us, with companies across the spectrum of the technology industry working hurriedly on the kind of software and hardware that will power the autonomous cars of the near future.

But it’s important to also figure out just how that technology will impact society as it hits the road in the coming years. Ford (F), for its part, is interested in how self-driving vehicles will not only operate in, but also change cities.

Now the automaker has announced it is working with a city in which it will operate its self-driving cars, and how specific businesses can benefit from the technology. Ford isn’t giving any specifics about what city it’s working with, even Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, Sherif Marakby, wouldn’t spill the beans during an interview at CES 2018.

How self-driving cars will alter cities

Marakby, did, however, explain how by working with partner companies like Lyft, Dominos and Postmates, Ford can better understand the needs of the self-driving car market.

In a Medium post discussing the company’s efforts, Jim Farley, Ford’s executive vice president and president of global markets, explained how self-driving vehicles could be used to provide a means of transportation for people who don’t have access to mass transit.

What’s more, Farley explained how Ford’s partnership with Postmates will give the company a better idea as to how delivery services work in cities and how self-driving cars can be used to save individual businesses on the cost of owning their own vehicles.

Ford says it’s also expanding its work with Dominos and Lyft into cities, which should give them a better understanding of how people will react to major changes in services. After all, if a self-driving car delivers your pizza, you’ll have to go out to the vehicle to get your pie.

Ford already tried this in the suburbs and found that many people were more than happy to grab their pizza from a robot car. In the city though, getting your pizza from such a vehicle could mean running down flights of stairs, or taking an elevator, to your building’s front door, something that’s not going to be easy or convenient for everyone.

How we’ll interact with self-driving cars

When fully autonomous vehicles do eventually hit the road, we’ll need to figure out how pedestrians will communicate with them. Think of all of the small, but necessary interactions you have with drivers when walking to work. You look at a driver when crossing the street to see if they’re staying put, watch their head movements to see if they are paying attention to you and follow their hand motions to see if they’re yielding to you. Without a driver, though, all of those behaviors go out the window.

That’s why Virginia Tech’s Transportation Institute is working on a lighting system that alerts pedestrians and even human drivers to a self-driving car’s intentions on the road. The school made headlines about its initiative back in September when it revealed that it was driving cars around Arlington, Virginia, with the driver disguised as a seat to see if pedestrians and other drivers would be comfortable with the idea of an autonomous vehicle.

It’s an interesting concept, and one that certainly needs to be further studied, but will require pedestrians and drivers to learn an entirely new language of the road.

However, companies address these issues, they’ll need to do so soon. Many automakers say they’ll make their autonomous vehicles available for the mass market between 2020 and 2025. Here’s hoping we know how to communicate with them by then.

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Email Daniel Howley at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley.

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