Why Ford (NYSE: F) Wants to Put a Robot in Your Driver's Seat
Tags: autonomous cars, computer chips, Ford (NYSE:F), Lane Keeping System, radar, robotic cars, robots, software
There is a cutting edge technology that could save the lives of up to 10 million people around the world over the next decade.
If you drive a car, one of them might just be you.
Car crashes kill about 1.2 million people worldwide each year. And let's face it, drivers are getting worse -- not better.
Between texting, mobile e-mail and glitzy in-dash graphics, today's drivers are more distracted than ever.
In fact, more than 90 percent of all auto accidents are caused by driver error.
That's one of the reasons why Ford Motor Co. (NYSE: F) is taking the lead in producing robotic cars.
In other words, it won't be long before you can put your car on "auto pilot."
A Radical Change for Drivers
Technically speaking, though, the robot wouldn't actually drive the car for you.
Instead, the vehicle will be cram-packed with advanced sensors, computer chips, radar and software.
Together, all these gadgets are designed to take over driving at critical times, such as when a driver wanders out of his lane.
These autonomous features could also help combat the boredom many of today's drivers suffer in urban centers when they are stuck in traffic nearly an hour each day.
That's not to say that today's cars are unsafe.
Compared to vehicles from 20 years ago, today's feature-rich cars and trucks are practically like space capsules. A series of breakthroughs in design and materials have made cars safer and more sophisticated than ever before.
And yet the roads really aren't that much safer.
U.S. crash stats show that from 1994 until the middle of this decade, the number of highway deaths actually increased despite the advancements.
Vehicle fatalities didn't fall until the recession hit in 2008 when people drove less to save money or because they actually didn't have a job to drive to.
Now don't get me wrong. I'm not saying for a minute that Ford wants to sell robotic cars out of the kindness of their hearts.
They're in it to make a buck like the next guy. What's different is they believe driverless cars are the future of the auto industry.
For key Ford execs it is a matter of pushing this cutting-edge tech or getting left in the dust.
In fact, they see two key barriers keeping robotic cars from a total sweep of the sector -- cost and the fact that drivers don't want to give up control.
But as it did with safety belts and airbags, the cost issue will sort itself out eventually in the market. With increases in volume, the cost of this driverless tech will fall to a point that makes sense in the mainstream market.
As for driver control, it will take some training and I believe it will come along in baby steps.
Ford's Car of the Future
Ford apparently has no doubts. It's putting robots in a position to take control a little at a time. The firm wants to move what are now perks in upscale cars down to the masses.
Take the case of the new Ford Fusion.
It's aimed at budget-minded drivers and comes equipped with advanced features that save lives.
The Fusion boasts a Lane Keeping System that uses the car's forward camera to detect when the car drifts outside its lane. When that happens, the driver immediately gets an alert.
Here's the cool thing. If the driver fails to respond, the car automatically corrects and goes back on its proper course.
Just think how different things might have turned out had Aaron Deveau been driving that kind of car.
You guessed it. He was texting while driving. He slammed head on into a pickup truck, killing a father of three.
With more cases like these, it's only a matter of time before people will begin to see the wisdom of having robots help operate our cars and trucks.
The Endless Traffic Jam?
And here's another reason to get on board -- population growth.
We now have 6.8 billion people on Earth. That figure could climb to nearly 10 billion by the end of this century.
If you think traffic is bad now, just wait. In a not-too-distant future, there's not going to be room for all of the cars.
And that's literally going to be true in such urban centers as Beijing, Mexico City, Los Angeles and London.
In those places, gridlock would be unavoidable in the absence of robots.
Robotic cars could talk to each other wirelessly so that each vehicle uses less space by operating more efficiently. Doing so, you can safely operate more cars in less space.
Mercedes and Audi have announced plans to add gear to their cars to do just that. A guidance system can track several vehicles ahead and allows you to enter an efficient caravan.
And last month, Volvo completed a test of a unique parade of four robotic vehicles connected by a mobile wireless network. They traveled in sync at speeds of more than 50 miles an hour.
Meanwhile, one high-tech leader has logged as many robotic car miles as any firm on earth. It's Google Inc. (Nasdaq: GOOG) whose robotic cars have logged more than 200,000 miles.
In fact, the state of Nevada just granted Google the nation's first driver's license for robotic cars. The state requires at least two passengers at all times and has designed red license plates to make the cars easier to spot.
Let me close by saying I don't believe drivers ever will -- or should -- give up complete control of their cars.
Just like pilots, they will need to have manual controls to cope with emergencies that require human judgment and skills
But in as little as a decade, we will be buying fully autonomous cars that use less fuel and improve traffic flow.
Oh yeah, and they also will save millions of lives.
P.S. If you want to find a way to profit from the next generation of tech breakthroughs, the Era of Radical Change newsletter is a great place to start.