Ford Moved Self-Driving Operations to a New, Off-Site Business

Ford is rolling its autonomous-driving business into a semi-autonomous operation in downtown Detroit, separate from corporate HQ in Dearborn. Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC (ALLC), as the operation will be called, will get $4 billion in initial investments from the Ford mothership over five years.

With the freestanding operation, Ford hopes Ford Autonomous Vehicles may function more like a tech startup than an automaker, and be especially rewarding to Ford shareholders and ALLC employees. Ford could establish a tracking stock and/or spin off the company. Whether this brings self-driving Fords and Lincolns to market any quicker is less certain.

Ford’s Techiest Operations Move Downtown

Ford’s investment of $4 billion through 2023 includes $1 billion for an ownership stake in Pittsburgh-based Argo AI. That appears to be in addition to the costs of developing the Corktown campus. Earlier in the month, Ford announced it would move its electric vehicle operations to Corktown and bring out 40 electrified vehicles by 2025, meaning EVs, plug-in hybrids, and hybrids. This after essentially no new EVs for half a decade.

By some accounts, Ford will have to invest more than the $4 billion to get self-driving cars to market. The fatal Uber crash (in a Volvo, not a Ford, and not using Ford software) shows there’s lots more development and testing needed. There were two notable glitches: The car’s lidar sensors captured images-as-data of the walking bicyclist but the software didn’t act on the information, and the driver appeared to have been looking down at a video in the minutes and seconds before the accident. That means the lower levels of autonomous driving (1 and 2) are doable because it requires the driver to pay attention, and that level 3 is iffy because it’s fully autonomous on some roads but the driver must be able to take over quickly. The hard part remains in creating a vehicle that can be fully autonomous on many roads such as interstates (level 4) or every road (level 5).

The mothership: Ford Dearborn HQ.

Ford may believe that getting creative types away from HQ makes them more creative. Corktown is just seven miles from Dearborn, Michigan, but it’s more distant than just the miles. Headquarters for GM’s crown jewel, Cadillac, was moved from Michigan to funky downtown Manhattan. It’s the only automaker HQ where you wander in off the street for a very good cup of coffee and see a gallery of (non-automotive) artistry by a New York designer or artist.

According to Ford’s statement this week:

Ford Motor Company … has created Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, a new organization charged with accelerating its AV business to capitalize on market opportunities. The company also detailed key organizational changes designed to improve its operational fitness and drive profitable growth.

The company is organizing its self-driving business into Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, which will include Ford’s self-driving systems integration, autonomous vehicle research and advanced engineering, AV transportation-as-a-service network development, user experience, business strategy and business development teams. The new LLC, which is structured to take on third party investment, will be primarily based at Ford’s Corktown campus in Detroit and will hold Ford’s ownership stake in Argo AI, the company’s Pittsburgh-based partner for self-driving system development. Ford expects to invest $4 billion in its AV efforts through 2023, including its $1 billion investment in Argo AI.

Sherif Marakby, currently Ford vice president, Autonomous Vehicles and Electrification, is appointed CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC reporting to a board of directors chaired by Marcy Klevorn, Ford’s executive vice president and president, Mobility. The closer alignment of the self-driving platform and the mobility solutions teams will allow faster development of businesses that can thrive in the pre- and post-autonomous vehicle worlds.

The acronym for “Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC” is not FAVLLC but AVLLC, which sounds like an audio-visual crew. But then FAV sounds more like a hashtag than a serious company, and FALLCY might be pronounced fallacy. So AVLLC it is. Maybe Ford will have a renaming contest that highlights the safety of self-driving vehicles.

My safety-conscious pick: Ford Motor should rebadge the awkwardly named Autonomous Vehicles LLC as the Detroit Lions because, long-suffering fans know, the Lions don’t do much damage to people they run into.