The future of transport is on its way. It’ll be arriving in five minutes—it’s just completing a trip around the corner first.
Ford has publicly stated that it plans to have self-driving cars on the road in some commercial capacity by 2021, and has been building out a testing facility in Miami for the last nine months. It now operates dozens of autonomous test vehicles in the city. At a Nov. 14 event in Florida’s biggest city, the company gave journalists an early look at how it believes its autonomous-vehicle service might operate, and what the average rider might be in store for in just a few short years, assuming all goes to plan.
The state of Ford’s self-driving cars
This was the first time Ford let journalists into its self-driving vehicles since a smaller 2016 event at its campus in Dearborn, Michigan. Then, the company restricted rides to slow trips essentially only on company property. On Nov. 14, I took four separate rides in four different autonomous vehicles, on real roads, with real everyday obstacles. Moped drivers followed the cars I was in far too closely; cars merged around us on both the left and right at the same time; a truck started parallel parking without indicating; a bicycle came out of nowhere, riding diagonally across the street the wrong way. For the most part, Ford’s cars handled these situations with the heads-up awareness that I’d expect from a seasoned human driver used to the daily flow of life in a busy city.
At other times, the vehicles performed rather poorly. Many of their deficits were confusing, given how well they performed in more complex situations. For example, almost every ride I took started out with the car stopping short, apparently because it was detecting Ford’s myriad representatives who were at every vehicle stop, and the car’s computers for a second thought they might be thinking about jumping out in front of the car. A wise decision for a computer, perhaps, but jarring as a passenger, and unlike how a human driver would respond to the scenario. In one case, when passing a line of parked cars, my car hesitated a few times, presumably thinking that one of the cars might potentially pull out, even though there was no one in any of them. The cars also made a few sharp turns that would’ve been amazing on a race track, but weren’t so great in downtown Miami.