Laura Merling, a Silicon Valley executive deeply experienced in the Internet of Things (IOT), has been hired by Ford Motor Company as Vice President of Autonomous Vehicle Solutions at Ford Smart Mobility LLC. According to the Motley Fool, a broad involvement of IOT within the automotive industry includes autonomous driving, connected cars, cloud computing, and artificial intelligence. Merling's prior experience has encompassed running an independent consultancy on IOT as well as being a former executive vice president at SAP, and she continues in an advisory role with several startup companies on digital manufacturing, machine learning, and connected devices. Her role at Ford Smart Mobility will be to lead the commercialization of autonomous vehicles.
Ford Smart Mobility
Ford Smart Mobility LLC was established as a subsidiary of Ford Motor Company in March 2016 as part of the expansion of Ford's business model 'to be both an auto and a mobility company.' It champions emerging alternatives to traditional car ownership, serving as an incubator for potential business opportunities ranging from fractional car ownership to ride sharing. One of its initial projects will be an expansion of last year's London Dynamic Shuttle Program which explored personal vehicles and public transportation providing comfortable rides with ride-hailing. Smart Mobility is located in Dearborn, Michigan and works closely with the Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto, California which researches innovations in connected cars, autonomous vehicles, and mobility.
Merling will be joined at Smart Mobility by Rajendra 'Raj' Rao as Chief Executive Officer, who will bring significant global experience and a proven track record for innovation. Most recently Rao, as vice president of digital business model innovation at 3M, led the company’s Silicon Valley digital hub and Internet-of-Things projects. According to Ford Motor Company news, Rao, as CEO, 'will lead the creation and growth of Ford Smart Mobility LLC’s various businesses, including the recently announced City Solutions business, the Chariot shuttle business and Greenfield Labs, Ford Smart Mobility LLC’s business model incubator.'
Self-driving Cars by 2021
The position that Merling now holds and the ongoing collaboration between Smart Mobility and Palo Alto's Research Center marks the company's switch from research and development of autonomous vehicles to active commercialization of self-driving cars by 2021. This year, 2016, Ford will have the largest test fleet of autonomous vehicles of any automotive maker, with its test cars on the roads of Michigan, California, and Arizona. Ford is likewise the first to take the major step of testing self-driving vehicles in the snow. In the next five years, the company will triple its engineering investment in semi-autonomous and driver-assist technologies being implemented in Ford vehicles, including adaptive cruise control, pedestrian detection, parking assist, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping assist, and vehicle-to-vehicle connection technology.
The focus of Ford's autonomous vehicle development is now on producing a Level 4 fully autonomous vehicle that, according to the Society of Automotive Engineers, is able to manage all aspects of driving in certain environmental conditions or modes of driving. The vehicles sales, at least initially, will be targeted toward ride-sharing, ride-hailing, or dynamic shuttle firms. Personal ownership of self-driving cars may arrive when economies of scale and further technological advances bring costs down enough to be affordable by consumers.
Moral and Legal Considerations
Even if the technology is ready, the manufacturing process has been worked out, and costs are affordable, other factors remain before self-driving cars become a reality for the American public. Traffic laws, licensing, and other regulations which vary from state to state need to be addressed. How insurance coverage will be applied and who should carry liability are questions yet undetermined when driving decisions are made by complex algorithms programmed by software developers writing the navigation software. Who will adjudicate ethical decisions, such as an instance of an autonomous vehicle faced with two fatal alternatives, turning to harm either a group of children, or an adult with a infant? Turning the responsibility for driving over to an autonomous non-human vehicle highlights the potentially enormous risks that we as human drivers face each time we choose to drive.