Ford Motor has hired a Silicon Valley executive with deep experience in connected devices and machine learning to bring self-driving cars to market, the latest signal that the automaker is accelerating its shift from research and development of autonomous vehicles to a full-scale business.
Laura Merling will be vice president of autonomous vehicle solutions at Ford Smart Mobility, a subsidiary focused on developing the automaker’s transportation services such as car-sharing. Ford Smart Mobility is based in Palo Alto, Calif. and is headed up by Jim Hackett, former chief executive at Mich.-based office furniture company Steelcase. Hackett was also a Ford board member, but stepped down in March when he was hired to lead Ford Smart Mobility.
Merling’s primary role will be to lead the commercialization of autonomous vehicles, Ford said in a statement released Thursday. Ford announced plans in August to produce self-driving cars for commercial ride-sharing or on-demand taxi services by 2021. Ford is focused on developing a fully autonomous vehicle, or Level 4, a classification by the Society of Automotive Engineers that means the car can handle all aspects of driving in some conditions or driving modes. For example, the cars may only operate under certain environmental conditions or a specific area within a city. It would be one step short of the highest rating, Level 5, when a car can handle all driving tasks in all road and environmental conditions normally controlled by a human.
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Ford’s top-tier executives and board have made it clear that they want the company to do more than make and sell cars, even though that will remain its core business. Ford CEO Mark Fields has told Fortune before that the company sees vast revenue potential for the $5.4 trillion market for car-sharing services like Zipcar and ride-hailing services like Uber that are unrelated to conventional car ownership. And while Ford has experimented with various ride-sharing and hailing projects, its real interest is in combining on-demand transportation with self-driving cars.
Merling, who ran her own Internet of things consultancy and was a former executive vice president at SAP, will continue to serve in an advisory role for several startups working on connected devices, machine learning, and digital manufacturing including Wivity, Thin Systems, Alluvium.io, and Authentise.
Merling has worked with Ford (F), albeit indirectly, in the past. As a technology analyst with TechTeam Global back in 1989, Merling worked on project for Ford, including the launch of the company’s first online configurator for the F-Series trucks.