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Ford’s Self-Driving Car Experiment Is Coming to California

December 15, 2015, 11:51 PM UTC
John Luo/Courtesy of Ford Motor Co.

Ford will start testing self-driving cars on California’s public roads, signaling the company’s increasing efforts to develop vehicles with cutting edge technology.

The Dearborn, Michigan-based automaker said Tuesday that it has enrolled in the California Autonomous Vehicle Testing Program, which already includes companies like Nissan, Volkswagen, and Google. Fully autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrids are expected to hit California’s streets next year.

Ford also said it will expand its strategic research partnership with Stanford University in 2016 to 13 projects, more than double the number of collaborations this year. The partnership, which kicked off in 2013, aims to research and solve some of the technical challenges related to automated driving.

California’s mild weather will let the company to extend testing year-round, according to Ford. The state’s unique road infrastructure and unusual transportation scenarios—like motorcycles that can legally split lanes—will provide new conditions for the vehicles to cope with and learn from, according to Ford.

Although Ford (F) isn’t considered to be the leader in developing self-driving cars, this isn’t its maiden effort either. Ford is already testing fully autonomous vehicles on public roads in at its proving grounds in Romeo, Mich., Wittmann, Ariz., and at Mcity, a 23-acre simulated urban environment at the University of Michigan.

The tests are part of Ford’s 10-year autonomous vehicle development program and its so-called Ford Smart Mobility. That initiative, introduced nearly a year ago, involves building cars with additional Internet connectivity, experimenting with the different forms of transportation such as car-sharing as well as using big data analytics (like grabbing information from in-vehicle sensors) to learn more about how people travel.

Ford already has a foothold in California with its Palo Alto research lab, which opened in January. It is a critical piece of the company’s effort to innovate. Ford has had a Silicon Valley office since 2012. But the research lab signaled the company’s true arrival—and interest—in the tech industry’s capital.

The research lab, which started with 15 employees, now has more than 100 researchers, engineers, and scientists. About 80% of those new hires come from the technology sector, according to Ford.

In the past year, the lab has used virtual test drives to study the interaction between an autonomous car and pedestrians, and researched sensors and how they can pull information from street signs, vehicles and even pedestrians. The Ford lab also studied data-driven health care. The company is working with Riders for Health to collect GPS data and mapping coordinates to make health care, vaccines and medication delivery to people throughout rural Africa.

Most major automakers as well as Google are working on autonomous driving technologies. California is considered the hub of such activity with Nevada following on its heels. Earlier this month, Kia Motors announced it was granted a license by the state of Nevada to test its autonomous driving technologies on public roads.

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