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However, Ford already has some heavy competition. Google has made significant progress with driverless vehicles over the last few years, and hopes to have a driverless car ready for production within five years. Upstart electric car maker Tesla Motors has even more aggressive plans – it claims it can deliver a driverless version of its Model S car to market in as little as three years’ time. Given that the company’s founder, Elon Musk, made his fortune out of founding PayPal, and more recently was behind the first commercial spaceflight to the International Space Station, his prediction about launching a driverless car carries a certain level of credibility.
There is also likely to be competition from other established automakers. Nissan has already said that it can deliver a driverless car by 2020 – fully five years earlier than Ford is targeting. General Motors is also working on a system called “Super Cruise” that will allow cars to almost drive themselves – in other words, an autopilot system rather than a true driverless car. GM’s system has already been tested at its Milford Michigan testing grounds, using a Cadillac SRX SUV equipped with the technology – and the results were encouraging according to GM.
Nonetheless, the launch of the new prototype marks another milestone in a remarkable turnaround for Ford, which racked up enormous losses during the Great Recession. The crisis that Ford and other carmakers went through played a significant part in the Federal Reserve’s decision to drop interest rates to historic lows and introduce quantitative easing – read more about this in Ken Fisher's Betting Against Bernanke article.
In fact, Ford reported a record loss of $14.6 billion in 2008, and had to draw down the last $10 billion of its lines of credit to give it sufficient cash to weather the financial storm. The car company did not suffer as badly as its rival, GM – which had to enter bankruptcy protection – but nobody would have predicted the recovery it has made just five short years later. In the third quarter of this year, Ford beat analysts’ expectations by posting a pretax profit of $2.6 billion. In fact, Ford’s profitability has been growing steadily since the dark days of 2008, and it has now had 17 consecutive positive quarters.
In many ways, it’s not such a large step from where we are today with car control systems to the driverless car of the future. Many automakers – including GM, BMW, Lexus and Mercedes – already offer cruise control systems that keep their cars a safe distance from other vehicles to avoid collisions. Parking assist technology is also becoming more prevalent, yet another example of semi-autonomous operation. The radar technology used in these types of systems is relatively mature, so it is more a matter of fine-tuning software to let vehicles operate themselves.
The question, of course, is whether regulation will catch up with technology – are governments in the US going to allow cars to roam their roads with nobody at the helm? It appears that maybe they are. California, Nevada and Florida are already working on creating ground rules for driverless cars – and Google test vehicles are already a relatively common sight in parts of California. Driverless car bills were also debated in nine other states in 2013 – and while many of these died in committee, it seems that Michigan is likely to pass a bill by the end of the year.
However, legislation is only the first step in the process. While these bills will allow companies to test vehicles on public roads, provided that they have previously been tested on private ones, there is still a long way to go before the average car owner can drive – or rather, not drive – an autonomous car once these hit the market. Not only do the rules have to be clarified at the state level, the US Department of Transportation also needs to put a countrywide framework in place for autonomous vehicles – for example, if someone is caught over the legal limit in an autonomous car, are they still guilty of DUI?