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Ford CEO Mark Fields Says Fully Autonomous Cars Could Hit Roads in Four Years

And he apologized for showing up in Silicon Valley in a tie.

Ina Fried

Ford CEO Mark Fields said Wednesday that he sees the potential for fully autonomous cars to be available for use on U.S. streets in four years’ time.

Speaking to reporters in San Francisco, Fields said that Ford should be able to have vehicles that can be fully autonomous on roads where high-definition maps are available. The key, he said, is making sure that the regulatory and legal issues get worked out.

“Technology tends to lead all that,” Fields said.

Fields’s time frame is even more aggressive than others in the field, including Google. Google has said it hopes self-driving cars will be in the mass market in five years, although the Internet giant has yet to reveal a business plan for its own fleet. Other automakers have offered much longer timelines for self-driving vehicles.

“I describe our strategy as having one foot in today and one foot in tomorrow,” Fields said. “We are becoming a mobility company and an auto company.”

Fields said that part of the company is focused on selling traditional cars, trucks and SUVs, while the other is looking at where transportation will be 20 years from now. He said he wants his company to bring as much change to the future of transportation as Henry Ford brought 100 years ago.

“What are the decisions that we need to make today to allow us to be successful [in that world]?” Fields said. At the same time, he touted the fact that Ford has been the best-selling U.S. carmaker for six years running.

Fields apologized to the crowd of tech reporters for showing up in a suit and tie, but said that it wasn’t because he doesn’t get the tech dress code. Fields said he had come from an economic event with Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx and other executives and leaders.

Ford announced last week that it has begun testing autonomous vehicles at Mcity, a 32-acre test layout run by the University of Michigan. That gives Ford a full-scale urban environment in which new technologies can be tried out safely.

“You don’t want to do that on the streets of Ann Arbor, especially after a U of M game,” he said.

There is a definite shift, Fields said, toward vehicles that aren’t owned solely by individuals. That is especially pronounced among millennials, many of whom, he said, fear other drivers more than public speaking or death.

Some cities are also trying to remove privately owned vehicles from city centers, Fields said, pointing to Oslo, Norway, which aimed to be free of such cars by 2019.

That said, he isn’t convinced the world is headed to a future with just on-demand autonomous vehicles. He noted that parents with kids probably won’t want to schlep car seats from one shared vehicle to another.

On the mobile app front, the carmaker just announced an extension to its Ford Sync entertainment system that allows people to use their smartphone to remotely locate or even start their car. Fields said the company plans to extend that feature, known as Ford Sync Connect, to its complete line of vehicles.

Data collection and analytics is another area of focus, Fields said. Asked just what kind of data Ford wanted to collect and use, Fields said the first step is just unifying the company’s existing databases, such as those kept by its sales, credit and customer service arms. Down the road, Fields said, Ford needs the ability to make sense of all that data — provided customers give their okay for that.

Fields has emphasized Ford’s desire to work with Silicon Valley companies while not handing the keys to the kingdom over to Apple and Google. Ford has said it plans to include Apple’s CarPlay and Google’s Android Auto to some vehicles, but has not given a timetable. Fields declined Wednesday to say when support for those systems would come.

“As you can imagine, we are working on it,” Fields said.

Asked about the company’s stock price, Fields said he learned to stop trying to predict that a long time ago.

“I think we are working on the right things,” Fields said.

Additional reporting by Mark Bergen.

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