June 23, 2015 / 4:07 PM / 2 years ago

Ford joins rivals in ramping up pace of self-driving car tech

The corporate logo of Ford is seen at a Ford branch in Caracas March 27, 2015. REUTERS/Carlos Garcia Rawlins

PALO ALTO, Calif./DETROIT (Reuters) - Ford Motor Co is joining other global automakers in stepping up efforts to roll out self-driving cars, company executives said on Tuesday.

The U.S. automaker will expand advanced safety technology, including automatic braking, across its global vehicle lineup over the next five years, they said. Such systems, the precursors of fully autonomous vehicles, enable hands-free operation of cars under certain conditions by automating such basic functions as steering, braking and throttle.

Ford has lagged behind competitors, notably General Motors Co, Volkswagen AG’s (VOWG_p.DE) Audi, Daimler AG’s Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors Inc, which have all announced plans to begin offering semi-automated driving systems over the next 18 months.

On Tuesday, Ford said it had created a global team to develop self-driving vehicles, with 29-year company veteran Randy Visintainer as director.

The move elevates a low-key research effort to a higher-profile advanced engineering project, and signals Chief Executive Mark Fields’ intent to accelerate Ford’s presence in the area.

“During the next five years, we will move to migrate driver-assist technologies across our product lineup (and) continue to increase automated driving capability,” Raj Nair, Ford’s global product development chief, said Tuesday in Palo Alto, California.

Nair said the move is “another step closer to production” of fully autonomous vehicles. He declined to say when such vehicles would reach the market, but other companies have targeted 2020.

Much of the engineering development work will take place at Ford’s recently opened research and innovation center in Palo Alto in northern California’s Silicon Valley, where the company expects to have 125 employees by year-end.

More than a dozen global automakers and suppliers have teamed up with tech startups and established companies in the area to develop advanced safety and self-driving systems.

Automatic braking and pedestrian detection, which are available on Ford’s Mondeo sedan in Europe, will debut next year on one of its U.S. vehicles and in most Ford products globally by 2019.

A key supplier of pedestrian-detection technology is Mobileye NV, which is working with Ford, GM, Tesla and other automakers to bring such advanced safety systems to market.

A study issued on Tuesday by AlixPartners on autonomous driving noted that the automotive industry is in the second phase of “advanced driver assistance systems,” or ADAS.

ADAS began in 2000 with phase one, which included the introduction by several companies of adaptive cruise control, which automatically regulates speed. The current phase includes active lane-keeping and emergency braking that require no driver input.

Ford said its advanced engineering efforts extend well beyond self-driving vehicles. Executives on Tuesday announced breakthroughs in high-speed, three-dimensional printing of prototype parts, in partnership with Silicon Valley-based Carbon3D, as well as the extension of the MyFord Mobile app to wearables, including Apple Watch and Android Wear.

The latter app will enable owners of Ford hybrid and electric cars to remotely check such functions as driving range and battery charge.

Reporting by Bernie Woodal in Detroit and Paul Lienert in Palo Alto, California; Editing by Jeffrey Benkoe and Richard Chang

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