Patent documents discovered by CarBuzz reveal automaker's proposal.
Since the end of 2017 Ford has been on a tear, desperately trying to make up ground lost to cross-town rivals, General Motors, in the race to develop self-driving cars. Now, new documents published by the United States Patent and Trademark Office shed light on the automaker's plans to develop an autonomous shuttle service. The company has been using all the right buzzwords but has been short on technical details pertaining to its new autonomous platform announced in January.
At the 2018 North American International Auto Show in Detroit, Ford promised it would spend $11 billion between now and 2022 as it tries to position itself as a key player in the future of mobility. The company has even announced it would create a new tech incubator called "Ford X," which would serve as the automaker's R&D division for the automaker's forthcoming Transportation Mobility Cloud. Despite all the good news, the financial markets haven't been all that impressed with the Blue Oval. Wall Street's biggest issue is that Ford's capital expenditures pertaining to autonomous technology have increased much faster than expected, without much tangible proof the program is progressing.
But that looks to be changing based on the company's latest patent for a "Passenger Pickup System and Method Using an Autonomous Shuttle Vehicle". Like most modern mobility solutions, Ford envisions its autonomous shuttle service to run off a downloadable app that will be used by prospective passengers to input a pickup request. The autonomous shuttle would then be dispatched to the pickup location and would be configured to triangulate the passenger's exact location through a signal exchange between the user's phone and the vehicle. The shuttles could be summoned for individual trips or operate along predefined routes acting as a fancier version of the bus.
Eventually, the plan is to offer a roving fleet of these anonymous looking, autonomous shuttles in major cities. In order to prevent potential vehicle mixups that could occur when several vehicles are making pickups in a similar location, the app will communicate a vehicle identifier to the user, and the vehicle will deny entry until either a security code is entered or a Bluetooth connection is made between the pair. Ford also thinks its shuttle network could play an important public security role. The passenger can use the app to transmit a distress signal to Ford's communication network which would then alert emergency services.
The document also states that the vehicles may include a camera mounted above the door which could record the situation and stream it back to Ford's data center. The shuttle itself could also initiate its own emergency response such as flashing its lights and honking its horn to create a scene. However, it's unclear how imminent any of this is. Waymo is already offering a driverless taxi service in Phoenix, while GM is planning to launch something similar in 2019. Clearly, though, Ford has been planning for an autonomous future for several years now, because although the document was published by the USPTO last week, the application for this patent was originally filed back in 2016.
Ford has already begun testing autonomous vehicles on the streets of Miami. Long-term, it's possible this proposal could even tie in with the automaker's recently launched Chariot shuttle service, which currently uses human-driven Ford Transit vans. The automaker has been talking a big game and making the right acquisitions as of late, but now it's time for the company to start putting the pieces together and proving to consumers and analysts alike that its truly entered into a new era of mobility.