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Ford to ‘have fully driverless vehicles on roads by 2021’

Ford Motor Co intends to have a fully driverless vehicle on the road within five years. The car will initially be used for commercial ride-hailing or ride-sharing services, with sales to consumers coming later.

"This is a transformational moment in our industry and it is a transformational moment for our company," said CEO Mark Fields, as he announced the plan yesterday at Ford's Silicon Valley campus in Palo Alto, California.

Ford's approach to the autonomous car breaks from many other companies, like Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors, which plan to gradually add self-driving capability to traditional cars. Just last month, BMW AG, Intel Corp. and the automotive camera maker Mobileye announced a plan to put an autonomous vehicle with a steering wheel on the road by 2021.

Instead, Ford is taking the same approach as Alphabet Inc's Google, which supports moving directly to self-driving cars once the technology is perfected. "We abandoned the stepping-stone approach of driver-assist technologies and decided we were going to take the full leap," said Raj Nair, Ford's chief technical officer.

Nair says Ford will continue developing systems that assist the driver, like automatic emergency braking or lane departure warning. But he said semi-autonomous systems that can operate the car but then cede control back to the driver when an obstacle is encountered are actually dangerous in Ford's view. 

Engineers couldn't figure out how to make sure drivers stay engaged and ready to take over. So, Ford decided to remove the driver altogether. "We learned that to achieve full autonomy, we have to take a completely different path," Nair said. Ford's vehicle will be specifically designed for commercial mobility services, like taxi companies, and will be available in high volumes. 

Ford says personal ownership of self-driving cars will come later. Ford didn't say whether it would work with a ride-sharing partner or try to establish services on its own. Rival General Motors Co. has a partnership with the ride-hailing company Lyft and has also bought a self-driving software company called Cruise Automation. 

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