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Ford creates new research team to focus on robotics and AI

Ford is establishing a new advanced research and engineering team to develop artificial intelligence (AI) and robotics solutions. A joint team with tech company Argo AI will continue development of Ford production self-driving cars.

IHS Markit perspective

  • Significance: The creation of Ford's new advanced research team specifically focused on artificial intelligence and robotics was announced in a blog post by vice-president of research and advanced engineering and CTO Dr Ken Washington.
  • Implications: Washington says that Ford may also run two self-driving vehicle test fleets, one for the development of the first production version, and the other for the new advanced team to use to carry out research beyond the first deployments of autonomous vehicles.
  • Outlook: Ford plans to launch a self-driving car in 2021, initially for ride-hailing services rather than personal buyers, a strategy that several other automakers are also taking. The statement from Washington indicates that the first product has moved far enough along in development for the advanced engineering and research team to look to challenges beyond deployment of the first self-driving car.

A blog post from Ford Motor Company's vice-president of research and advanced engineering and chief technology officer, Dr Ken Washington, has announced that the automaker is creating a robotics and artificial intelligence (AI) advanced research and engineering team. Washington wrote that Ford's partnership with tech company Argo AI has enabled the automaker's advanced research team to work on development of technology, including self-driving systems, without disrupting production work. Ford entered into a five-year partnership with Argo AI in February.

The Ford and Argo AI partnership will lead "development of our virtual driver system for production self-driving cars", according to Washington's blog post. The Argo AI team will build off the system Ford started, he said. The new team will be part of the existing Ford Research and Advanced Engineering group. Washington wrote in the blog, "This team will be dedicated to a greater focus on evaluating new sensor technologies, machine learning methods, technical requirements for entry into global markets, and development of personal mobility devices, drones and other aerial robotics to enhance first- and last-mile travel. With our plans to be at the forefront in the field, this move aligns multiple disciplines under one team for a more concerted effort as we increasingly come to understand the potential for robotics and artificial intelligence. The move also serves to further advance projects we've already presented ‒  such as our autonomous vehicle development program, and those we aren't quite ready to reveal."

Ford says that its "virtual driver system" includes the computer platform, sensors and algorithms for the automaker's first-generation self-driving vehicle programme. With Argo AI leading the transition to a production product, Ford's internal team can put greater emphasis on other rapidly developing advancements. Washington also noted that Ford's robotics and AI researchers will continue to collaborate with Argo AI, "so they can someday put this promising emerging technology to work in future generations of self-driving vehicles".

In creating this advanced team to run in parallel with the Argo AI production-orientated development, Washington says that Ford may run two separate fleets of self-driving vehicles, "one led by the Ford team, conducting advanced research, and another by Argo AI, developing and testing our virtual driver system for production". Washington also states that Ford's robotics and AI team will further evaluate advancements in other areas, including collaborative manufacturing of robots that could assist in ergonomically difficult tasks. He wrote, "Artificial intelligence plays a big role as part of our Global Data and Analytic team's support for sales, marketing and finance, so this team will look to further spread the technology to drive smarter decision making and more personalized experiences."

The new research team will maintain relationships built with start-ups as well, according to the blog post. It will also lead projects with universities working on robotics and AI, including universities that Ford is already working with and others the company is developing relationships with. Washington wrote, "This decision is driving energy with everyone on our team, as it clearly indicates the direction of Ford Motor Company. Because we understand the science of robotics and artificial intelligence, we can establish a team tasked with not just watching the future, but helping to create it."

Outlook and implications

Ford has announced that it plans to launch a self-driving car in 2021, initially for ride-hailing services rather than personal buyers, a strategy that several other automakers are also adopting. The statement from Washington indicates that the automaker's first self-driving product has moved far enough along in development for the advanced engineering and research team to look to challenges beyond deployment of the first autonomous vehicle.

Ford expects its market deployment of autonomous cars to take place later in the next decade and has been testing autonomous vehicles for a decade. In the lead-up to the 2017 CES exposition, Ford announced its self-driving car test fleet was being expanded as well. However, the new research team that Washington is assembling will look beyond the initial deployment of an autonomous vehicle targeted for 2021.

In the development of self-driving vehicles, AI and 'deep learning' are key development areas. The blog post by Washington sheds some light on Ford's next steps in this process, as well as indicating that the company will continue to develop internally much of the knowledge and skill sets needed to move forward in mobility and self-driving solutions, particularly in the area of advanced research.

This is the second recent announcement related to mobility or self-driving vehicles that Ford has put on its blog forum for primary distribution, and may indicate that Ford chairman Bill Ford has taken over direction of the automaker's communications. This is a method of communication that Waymo (and its predecessor the Google car project) and electric vehicle manufacturer Tesla have used to share news and programme developments, as opposed to more traditional press releases or executive statements. It appears that Ford's advanced research team is likely to behave more like a start-up than a traditional advanced research and engineering unit at most automotive companies.

About this article

The above article is from AutoIntelligence Daily by IHS Markit. AutoIntelligence Daily provides same-day analysis of automotive news, events and trends.​ Get a free trial.

About The Author

Ms. Stephanie Brinley is Senior Analyst-Americas, IHS Automotive, covering North and South America for the IHS World Markets Automotive service.

She is responsible for a daily update of news, events, interviews and product introduction summaries as well as special research reports and company profiles, providing context for and analysis of industry developments to worldwide subscribers. She joined IHS Automotive in summer 2013 with more than 20 years of experience in the automotive sector, including a decade in automotive analysis, four years' experience in supplier-based strategic communications and as a supplier-OEM marketing liaison, and several years on the editing side of a top automotive enthusiast publication in the United States. Ms. Brinley holds an a Bachelor of Arts in Public Relations and Marketing from Eastern Michigan University, Ypsilanti, Mich., and an MBA in Integrative Management from Michigan State University's Eli Broad College of Business, Lansing, Mich., US.