Throughout its years-long push to develop autonomous vehicles, has tested along city streets in Pittsburgh, during blinding snowstorms in Michigan, and through blistering temperatures in Arizona. When it comes to testing the business models that Ford thinks self-driving cars will support, rather than the underlying technology itself, company executives knew they needed a new venue. Ford has , company officials said Tuesday.
Earlier this month, Ford started testing self-driving delivery services in the city, an with Domino’s Pizza. Further tests will soon begin with Postmates, a logistics and delivery company. Far from one-off ventures, these Miami tests signal Ford’s intent to commit to the city over the long term. The testing will serve as a prelude to the launch of self-driving services, which the company projects will come to market in 2021, starting with Miami as the first U.S. city for commercial operations. Already Ford has started building a maintenance depot in the Wynwood section of Miami that will serve as a dispatch center and hub of operations.
Ford isn’t saying how many self-driving vehicles it will run in the city, but Sherif Marakby, the company’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, said he expects “month over month” growth in the fleet. For starters, there will be two separate fleets operating. One, run by Argo AI, a Pittsburgh startup in which Ford has invested $1 billion, will map Miami’s roads; the other, run by Ford, will make deliveries for the company’s user-experience testing.
For now, Ford is focused on making commercial deliveries with self-driving vehicles. But ride-sharing services underpinned by autonomous vehicles appear to be in the company’s plans.
“We’re starting with commercial deliveries because it’s a natural progression for our Domino’s and Postmates partnerships, and we’ll be announcing more in the upcoming months,” Marakby said. “But we announced a partnership last year with Lyft. So you’ll hear more from us. Our strategy is covering both—moving people and goods.”
Searching for a home in the Sun Belt seems like a no-brainer—the Florida climate will help avoid on which autonomous systems rely. But the enthusiasm of city officials, the variety of businesses that could utilize delivery services around the clock, and the geographic layout of the city and its suburbs all helped put Miami and surrounding Dade County at the top of Ford’s list.
Ford started self-driving pizza deliveries with Domino’s Pizza last fall in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in an ongoing pilot project that has helped both companies learn how customers interact with autonomous vehicles. Miami will help bolster those understandings, as the companies determine how those interactions might change when customers live in high-rise apartments in congested urban environments.
On the customer-facing end, they’ll study a range of issues, such as the willingness of customers to come meet a vehicle from those apartments, how customers use dual-language voice-recognition systems, and teaching vehicles to stop in the best place for dropping off goods in urban streets without illegally double parking. On the business side, Ford wants to figure out how to ensure that its fleet is used as often as possible rather than only at busy travel times.
“The fact that there’s a diverse set of businesses is a , because one of the keys for utilization is not only running at peak hours—we don’t like that,” Marakby said. “We want to run across most of the day, meaning we do want to have the availability for cars to move goods and people at times when it’s not peak.”
Miami is the fifth most congested city in the United States, according to the annual compiled by Inrix, a specialist in real-time traffic analytics. Commuters in Dade County spend an average of 64 hours stuck in traffic every year, so Ford’s desire to conduct around-the-clock operations is simpatico with the city’s goal of reducing peak-travel-time congestion.
As Ford studies how businesses use these services and the broader traffic environment, there’s still one key component missing from its plans to launch commercial services by 2021: it needs a car. Ford has previously stated that it is developing an all-new self-driving hybrid vehicle that will be tailored for deliveries and the ride-hailing environment. It has not revealed any timetable for showcasing this vehicle, but with commercial operations only three years away, Ford says its development is well underway.
Ford will need to move quickly to incorporate any findings from its Miami pilot projects into the initial user-experience designs. Marakby acknowledged that the window is shrinking but said there is still time. “It depends on what we’re trying to incorporate,” he said. “We’re not just looking at the vehicle. We’re well underway on the development of that vehicle, but a lot of things we’re expecting to learn about, like the software interface and how people access their delivery with a screen or authenticate themselves—it’s not too late for some things. But it might be for others.”