Moving forward

Ford's self-driving vehicles zoom into Austin to ease traffic woes

Ford's self-driving vehicles zoom into Austin to ease traffic woes

ford austin self-driving cars self driving vehicles autonomous
But it'll be years before customers can catch a ride. Photo courtesy of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC

Ford is bringing self-driving cars to the Capital City, the automaker announced on September 25. Austin will make the third market, including Miami-Dade County and Washington, D.C., to have Ford's self-driving cars on the road.

The fleet is part of Ford's innovative plan to launch commercial self-driving vehicle services, sort of like ride-hailing without the awkward small talk. To begin testing in a Austin, a fleet of vehicles — driven by humans — will begin mapping the city by the end of 2019, though it will be years before customers can actually call up a ride, the company says. 

Ford's reasons for selecting Austin over virtually every other city comes down to three factors: Austin's reputation as an innovation leader, its traffic issues, and the city's transportation and pedestrian challenges.

Austin embraces innovation
The city has a history of embracing self-driving technology, the company notes in a Medium post announcing the company's expansion to Austin. In 2013, Google tested a self-piloting car, a converted Lexus, in Austin as part of that year's Texas Transportation Forum. Two years later, more of Google's self-driving cars were on the streets.

Uber has also driven into the self-driving car game. And after Prop 1 initially failed to pass back in 2016, the ride-hailing service did return to the city, not to offer rides but to map the Capital City's roadways using self-driving cars.

... and is also desperate to ease traffic.
Austin also desperately need more transportation options, notes Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, in the Medium post.

"In each of the last eight years, Austin has been the fastest growing metro region in America, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. That growth has been felt by residents, as it provides new jobs as well as a diverse food and entertainment scene, but it has also affected how Austinites travel throughout the city," he says.

"The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization predicts vehicle use in the Austin region could double by 2040, while highway capacity will only grow 15 percent. Simply put, Austin has to look towards diverse and innovative ways to move people around."

Mayor Steve Adler welcomed the news, noting that about 75 percent of Austinites drive their own cars, which "is simply unsustainable," he says. Adler says the city's goal over the next 20 years is for at least half of the city to use alternative transportation options, such as buses and bicycles. 

"With our region’s population on track to double in the next 20 to 25 years, it’s clear we need to re-think how our right-of-way is used if we want people to be able to move around our city," he says. "That’s why it’s exciting that Ford is bringing its self-driving vehicle operations to our city. As noted in our Smart Mobility Roadmap, self-driving vehicles offer the potential to expand mobility options for all our residents and present opportunities to increase the capacity of our existing transportation system."

A unique topography
Ford will partner with technology platform company Argo AI to map Austin's streets. To begin, cars will first be driven manually throughout East Austin and downtown, preparing for autonomous testing by mapping the streets out.

"During our mapping process, though, we also get a sneak peek at what challenges may await us. That’s also true in Austin, which features heavy pedestrian activity, notably people riding bicycles and scooters," Argo AI president Peter Rander says in the post. "Scooters are especially interesting because they’re essentially motorized pedestrians, with speedy and unique movement behavior that needs to be accounted for. Austin has more scooter activity than we’ve seen in other cities where we’re currently testing."

Ford, Argo AI, and the city say they want to be thoughtful about executing this initiative, which is why they aren't rolling cars out onto the streets, say, tomorrow.

"We believe that if you want to successfully launch a self-driving service that improves people’s lives, you can’t just drop into a city and start rolling cars out onto the streets," Marakby says. "You need to develop a comprehensive understanding of what people and local businesses would find useful — and that’s exactly what we’ll be doing over the next few years."