Riding Around Miami in Ford's Self-Driving Test Cars
Riding Around Miami in Ford's Self-Driving Test Cars
Ford this week drove me around Miami's busy downtown, midtown, and Wynwood neighborhoods in its self-driving Fusion. My first two rides were uneventful, but then things got more interesting.
By Angela Moscaritolo November 15, 2018 11:50AM EST
"Don't die" was the general sentiment when I told friends and family I was heading to Miami to get a ride in Ford's self-driving test car.
Maybe I'm crazy, but I wasn't worried. I believe the common refrain from autonomous vehicle (AV) makers and their allies: this technology will make the roads safer, not less so. Several of my colleagues have already had rides in self-driving test cars and lived to tell the tale. Spoiler alert: so did I.
In late February, Ford deployed a fleet of autonomous test vehicles in Miami, calling the south Florida city the "first proving ground" for its self-driving business. Yesterday, the Dearborn, Mich.-based automaker and its Pittsburgh-based self-driving technology partner Argo AI gave a group of reporters, including this one, an opportunity to ride around in them.
During Ford's well-planned and executed "Miami AV experience," I got not one but four rides in the company's self-driving Fusion around Miami's busy downtown, midtown, and mural-clad Wynwood neighborhoods. Between stops, we used an Uber-like app Ford had spun up for the event to request our next ride.
Ahead of the rides, Ford CEO James Hackett (pictured above) warned us that they would not be flawless.
"The rides are not about perfection today," Hackett said. "We decided—with great discussion—we wanted you to feel where we are, because we think we're further ahead than people understand."
Argo AI President Peter Rander then assured us that safety is the company's top priority.
Two safety drivers were present for each ride: one in the driver's seat, and another riding shotgun. Each test driver goes through a month of training in Pittsburgh before they're allowed on the road, one said. They then get almost daily briefings about software changes.
The person in the driver's seat keeps their hands on the steering wheel without gripping, letting it slide through their hands as it moves on its own. If something goes awry, the safety driver can disengage autonomous mode and take over control of the vehicle in three different ways: by manually moving the steering wheel, or tapping the gas or brake pedal. Meanwhile, the co-driver uses a laptop to monitor what the car is "seeing" and "thinking" and take notes.
In Miami, Ford's AVs face plenty of challenges—people on bikes, scooters, and in wheelchairs; one-way streets, emergency vehicles, railroad tracks, tourists, and bad drivers.
My first two rides were pleasant and uneventful. I didn't feel scared in the least. It actually felt like a (very careful) human was operating the vehicle. I quickly realized Ford's self-driving vehicles aren't for people in a hurry: They won't go even a mile over the speed limit.
During my third ride, things got more interesting. We rode from Midtown to Wynwood, one of the most densely crowded areas of Miami in which Ford tests. At one point, a shirtless pedestrian darted into the road, not on a crosswalk, coming close to the rear of the vehicle, thoroughly freaking me out. The AV was not as startled and stayed on its route.
When faced with a large cement truck, the AV didn't do as well. We were turning right, and the cement truck was stopped at a red light on the other side of the road onto which we were turning. The test driver explained that he had to disengage autonomous mode because the vehicle didn't think it had enough room to make the turn, when it really did. The co-pilot made a note about the incident, so Argo AI's engineers could look into it and tweak the software so it could better react to similar incidents in the future.
One test driver said Argo AI has made "massive" improvements to the software since he first started this past June. One of the coolest parts of the job, he said, is seeing how quickly the company's engineers can roll out those changes. In just the last two weeks, the software has progressed like "night and day," he said.
My fourth and final ride of the day was the glitchiest. It started out rough when the AV made a few jerky stops reacting to a cyclist riding on the wrong side of the road. As we rode through a construction zone, the car came to a complete stop in the middle of the road because it mistook a cloud of dust for an object. On the final leg of the journey, the AV spent way too long, in my opinion, driving behind a slow-moving bus, which stopped several times. Most human drivers would have just gone around the bus.
Do Ford's test drivers ever disagree with the decisions the car makes, I wondered? Sometimes, but the software is becoming more human-like with every update, one said.
Besides people, Ford is using its Miami testing ground to explore how its AVs can move goods. During one stop, the company demoed the autonomous delivery services it's testing with Domino's, online food ordering service Seamless, and seven local businesses including three florists, three dry cleaners, and a pet boutique.
Ford is currently using "simulated" AVs operated by human drivers for these early trials, which aim to identify customer and merchant pain points about the experience. The vehicles have moving parts on the roof to mimic the LiDAR sensors Ford's actual AVs use to "see" all around the vehicle.
Domino's customers ordering through the company's website or app can opt to have their pizza delivered via a Ford AV. When the car arrives, the customer receives a notification, so they can go outside and retrieve their food. As the customer approaches the vehicle, audio prompts instruct them to enter the last four digits of their phone number on a screen on the side of the vehicle. The hatchback then opens automatically, revealing the customer's order. After the customer collects their food, the hatchback closes automatically.
During their interaction with the vehicle, a camera films the customer's reactions. Ford also surveys customers afterwards to find out what they thought of the experience. Early reactions from customers have been generally positive. Some like the fact that they don't have to interact with an actual human, a Ford rep said. At least one person tipped the car.
Ford is still in the early stages of building out its AV ride-hailing and delivery services, which it plans to officially launch in 2021. The company recently expanded its AV business development to Washington, D.C., where it expects to replicate everything it's doing in Miami.
The 2021 launch will involve the rollout of "tens of thousands" of fully autonomous vehicles, operating without safety drivers, in more than just two cities, Ford Autonomous Vehicles President and CEO Sherif Marakby told reporters Wednesday. Looking ahead 10 years, Ford expects its self-driving vehicle services to make up a "good portion" of its revenue, he added.
This is a huge financial investment for Ford; the company estimates it will spend $4 billion over the next five years.
"We want our self-driving vehicles to solve real-world problems with levels of accessibility, affordability and convenience that aren't possible now," Markby wrote in a blog post today. "When self-driving vehicles are ready for wide-scale deployment, you can bet that we will be, too."