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Ford’s self-driving car testing program heads to Austin

Ford is taking its autonomous car testing program to the Lone Star State. Austin, Texas, is the latest testing location for Ford’s prototype self-driving cars, joining Detroit, Pittsburgh, Miami, and Washington, D.C. Ford’s ultimate goal is to get an autonomous car into production within the next few years.

Ford chose Austin because of the city’s liberal attitude toward self-driving cars, and its dense population, which will provide business opportunities for the use of autonomous cars, Sherif Marakby, Ford’s autonomous-vehicle boss, wrote in a blog post. Ford wants to develop the business case for self-driving cars as it develops the technology itself. In Austin, the automaker will run business pilot programs, similar to what it has done in other cities with companies like Domino’s and Postmates. Ford will build its first self-driving cars for commercial fleets, not retail sales.

Austin has welcomed self-driving cars. The city already hosts Waymo, and has created a Smart Mobility Office to fast track the deployment of new transportation technology. The Texas state government has created a Connected and Autonomous Vehicle Task Force to study self-driving cars. Two Texas cities host a ridesharing service operated by startup, which was recently bought by Apple. TuSimple uses self-driving trucks to haul freight into Texas from Arizona. Uber recently brought its self-driving cars to Dallas, but so far they’re only expected to operate in manual mode.

In a statement, Austin Mayor Steve Adler said one goal of encouraging self-driving car testing is to help deal with the city’s explosive population growth. Almost 75 percent of Austinites currently commute alone in their personal cars, Adler said. With the city’s population expected to double over the next 20 to 25 years, that likely won’t be sustainable. Adler hopes autonomous cars will provide another option to residents, as well as provide greater access to transportation, and an increase in safety.

Ford has proposed ridesharing as one of the main uses for future self-driving cars, and the automaker isn’t alone. Waymo is already operating its Waymo One ridesharing service in Arizona, while Uber and Lyft hope to eventually replace human drivers with machines. Swarms of shared autonomous cars could lessen the need for city residents to own their own cars, but they may not decrease traffic congestion. Many rideshare users ride alone, so it’s effectively the same thing as commuting solo in a personal car.

The cars Ford currently uses for testing are modified Fusion sedans, but the company has said it will put a clean-sheet design into production by 2021. That car won’t have a steering wheel or pedals, and will be available only to businesses. It’s likely that Ford will also limit operations to areas that have been thoroughly mapped, and that won’t present any challenges the technology can’t handle. Austin could be one of those places.

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