Ford could start deploying “hundreds, if not thousands,” of self-driving vehicles that could eventually make their way onto Washington’s streets. Photo credit: FORD

UPDATED: 10/22/18 4:25 pm ET – new story

Ford plans to make the nation’s capital a pillar in its strategy to commercially deploy self-driving vehicles.

Starting in the first quarter of 2019, the company said it will begin testing its autonomous-driving technology in Washington D.C. That’s a prelude to Ford’s grander plans for the commercial launch of a business underpinned by self-driving tech that will begin in 2021.

At that point, Ford will start deploying “hundreds, if not thousands,” of self-driving vehicles that could eventually make their way onto Washington’s streets, according to Sherif Marakby, CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, the subsidiary created by Ford to handle its autonomous-driving business.

Those vehicles will be put into operation transporting passengers and delivering goods across the city’s eight wards. Ford’s pilot project is as much about crafting a business model behind those use cases as it is about ensuring the technology works on the capital’s crowded, traffic-heavy streets.

“We’re going to be working on developing the business within the different areas of the city,” Marakby told Automotive News on Monday. “It’s going to take some time, but it’s consistent with our philosophy that you’ve got to do it in parallel with the development of the technology. If that means working in complex areas, so be it.”

For now, the company’s test bed will start with 5 to 10 cars that are operated by Argo AI, the Pittsburgh technology company building Ford’s automated driving system.

Washington will mark the second city in which Ford has announced plans to commence commercial operations. It started similar testing in Miamithis year. As the company searched for the second place to call home for its business, it wanted a dense city with a population skewed toward younger consumers comfortable using ride-hailing services. Further, Ford wanted to work with a city eager to embrace automated vehicles.

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Ongoing discussions 

Although no company had deployed autonomous vehicles in Washington, city transportation officials had been working within the Bloomberg Aspen Initiative on Cities and Autonomous Vehicles to understand how self-driving technology could augment transportation in the city.

When Ford came calling, they were eager to partner. Discussions between the two have been ongoing for months, and included the time frame in March when an Uber self-driving vehicle was involved in a fatal accident. That prompted straightforward conversations, but ultimately Washington wanted to proceed.

“When we test any new form of transportation, there will always be questions about how safe it is and how it can be safer,” said Muriel Bowser, the city’s mayor. “But people don’t say, ‘I wish there was no automobile,’ at least not most, or that there wasn’t worldwide air travel. What we know is we’re growing, and we want to be growing, and we need to explore all transportation modes.”

Existing tests

Ford is a step or two ahead in those explorations. The company has been testing its self-driving technology in Detroit, Pittsburgh and Miami. In Miami, Ford runs a test fleet from an operations depot, and a similar hub has been established in D.C. 

“We’ve been on the ground for months,” Marakby said. “The bottom line, for us, was to find the right location and right environment, and we’ve had discussion with the city for months, and Argo has been here mapping and exploring.”

When commercial service launches in both locations, it will be in an all-new vehicle built for the automated-driving business. So far, Ford has kept that vehicle under wraps, but it is expected to be unveiled by year end.

Broadly, the latest announcement comes as Ford and CEO Jim Hackett have come under pressure to better articulate a long-term strategy for reversing the company’s sagging stock price. Monday’s news had little effect on the price, rising 6 cents to close at $8.41 per share.

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