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Back to school: Ford engineers will work at new University of Michigan robotics lab

Ford is expanding its collaboration with the University of Michigan in order to accelerate the development of self-driving cars.

The automaker will co-locate its own researchers and engineers with University of Michigan researchers at a new robotics lab set to open on the school’s Ann Arbor campus in 2020. Ford claims to be the first corporation to house staff in an academic building. It views this project as one step toward the development and deployment of a fully autonomous car by 2021.

Ford will begin the process of integrating its staff with University of Michigan researchers in the coming months. It plans to send a team of researchers and engineers to work at the university’s North Campus Research Complex (NCRX) by the end of the year.

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When the planned robotics lab opens in 2020, Ford will lease the fourth floor of the 140,000-square-foot building. It will be located near the University of Michigan’s Space Research Building, and will have enough space for robots to “walk, fly, drive, and swim” indoors, according to Ford. The building will also house offices and classrooms.

Ford already has a working relationship with the University of Michigan that includes use of the school’s Mcity facility for the testing of self-driving cars. Mcity is a simulated urban environment, complete with streets, traffic lights, and fake buildings. It was designed to create realistic conditions for autonomous-car testing in a controlled setting. Ford plans to triple its fleet of autonomous Fusion Hybrid test mules, bringing the total to 30 cars.

The carmaker’s endgame is a mass-market self-driving car, which it plans to begin deploying with ridesharing services in 2021. Unlike the Fusion Hybrid prototypes, this car will be a dedicated model, and won’t have any manual controls. Depending on how the ride-sharing phase goes, Ford may eventually sell the car to individual consumers as well.