Ford’s latest taxis use diesel and hybrid powertrains

The taxi of tomorrow might be dead but Ford today announced two new models that combine forward-looking technology with proven body styles. For the first time, Ford is offering a hybrid powertrain in a taxi model that is said to get a 40 mpg in the city. This news comes several weeks after Ford’s bombshell that it was dramatically reducing the amount of traditional cars it will sell in the North American market.

The Fusion Hybrid Taxi is Ford’s first hybrid taxi model and is said to be Ford’s most fuel-efficient taxis to date. In addition to the new powertrain, the model features additional bits that should make cabbies happy. The midsize sedan shares parts with the Ford Police Responder Hybrid such as a police-tuned suspension, higher ride and improved brakes. And steelies. Got to have steelies.

Ford also today announced the Transit Connect Taxi that rocks a 1.5-liter diesel engine and more room behind the second row than the competing Nissan NV200 Taxi.

Today’s announcement is important signaling to the automotive market. The Ford Crown Victoria once ruled the taxi market and there is still countless tapped for duty across the United States. Ford is clearly attempting to stay relevant in this market and is doing so through the use of non-traditional powertrains, though, I guess, an argument could be made that hybrid and diesel powertrains are now nearly traditional powertrains.

Ford buys historic Detroit train depot to house advanced technology groups

Michigan Central Station long stood as a symbol of Detroit’s decline. Now, thanks to Ford, it could represent Detroit’s return.

Today at an press conference in front of the Detroit icon, it was announced that Ford’s bid to purchase the train depot was accepted and the deal was done. The large building will be at the center of Ford move to turn Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood into Ford’s automotive technology groups campus.

“The deal is complete,” Matthew Moroun, whose family has owned the station since 1995, said at today’s event. “The future of the depot is assured. The next steward of the building is the right one for its future. The depot will become a shiny symbol of Detroit’s progress and its success.

This deal was Detroit’s worst-kept secret. It’s been known about for months. It will bring life to the desolate Corktown area, which though right next to the thriving downtown core, has yet felt the much love from Detroit’s rebirth. Amtrak last used the station in 1988 and it has since changed hands several times.

This deal has the potential to change Detroit. The downtown core is already experiencing a revival in business and culture but so far the surrounding neighborhoods have struggled to keep up. Corktown has ample room for new housing and businesses and redeveloping Michigan Central Station would throw the neighborhood the attention and money it needs to grow.

This would be Ford’s second recent investment in Detroit’s Corktown neighborhood. At the beginning of the year Ford announced it would put 200 employees in The Factory, a building less than a half a mile from Michigan Central Station. A redeveloped train station could house 1,000 Ford workers. Ford currently houses most of its employees in facilities around the Detroit suburb of Dearborn.

Ford tests autonomous on-demand delivery with Postmates

Ford is teaming up with startup Postmates to pilot test autonomous on-demand delivery in Miami and Miami Beach, Fla. The pilot program includes 70 businesses like Coyo Taco

Ford is also testing vehicle designs with multiple lockers in order to be able to serve more than one customer per delivery route. Since Postmates handles anything from food to hardware, the lockers are a variety of sizes.

The goal is to see how businesses and consumers interact with self-driving delivery cars. On the employee end, they get an access code to place the item inside. On the customer side, they’ll receive a text message with an access code when the order is ready to be picked up.

“Ultimately, we’re trying to make interaction with self-driving vehicles as easy as possible,” Ford wrote in a blog post. “Through our collaboration with Postmates, we’re testing different methods for efficient deliveries to help local businesses expand their reach and provide a seamless experience to customers.”

This is similar to Ford’s previous partnership with Dominos in Ann Arbor, Mich. and Miami, Fla. What’s different about this pilot, however, is the vehicle design that features multiple lockers, and both a touchscreen and audio for instructions. Each locker also has two cup holders to ensure seamless delivery of beverages.

Ford expects to officially deploy its purpose-built autonomous cars in 2021. In its pilot with Dominos, Ford found “customers enjoyed the voice instructions that played over speakers mounted on the outside of the vehicle to explain how to get their pizza out of the self-driving vehicle upon arrival at their house,” Ford EVP and President of Global Markets wrote in Medium post in December.

The well-funded startups driven to own the autonomous vehicle stack

At some point in the future, while riding along in a car, a kid may ask their parent about a distant time in the past when people used steering wheels and pedals to control an automobile. Of course, the full realization of the “auto” part of the word — in the form of fully autonomous automobiles — is a long way off, but there are nonetheless companies trying to build that future today.

However, changing the face of transportation is a costly business, one that typically requires corporate backing or a lot of venture funding to realize such an ambitious goal. A recent funding round, some $128 million raised in a Series A round by Shenzhen-based Roadstar.ai, got us at Crunchbase News asking a question: Just how many independent, well-funded autonomous vehicles startups are out there?

In short, not as many as you’d think. To investigate further, we took a look at the set of independent companies in Crunchbase’s “autonomous vehicle” category that have raised $50 million or more in venture funding. After a little bit of hand filtering, we found that the companies mostly shook out into two broad categories: those working on sensor technologies, which are integral to any self-driving system, and more “full-stack” hardware and software companies, which incorporate sensors, machine-learned software models and control mechanics into more integrated autonomous systems.

Full-stack self-driving vehicle companies

Let’s start with full-stack companies first. The table below shows the set of independent full-stack autonomous vehicle companies operating in the market today, as well as their focus areas, headquarter’s location and the total amount of venture funding raised:

Note the breakdown in focus area between the companies listed above. In general, these companies are focused on building more generalized technology platforms — perhaps to sell or license to major automakers in the future — whereas others intend to own not just the autonomous car technology, but deploy it in a fleet of on-demand taxi and other transportation services.

Making the eyes and ears of autonomous vehicles

On the sensor side, there is also a trend, one that’s decidedly more concentrated on one area of focus, as you’ll be able to discern from the table below:

Some of the most well-funded startups in the sensing field are developing light detection and ranging (LiDAR) technologies, which basically serve as the depth-perceiving “eyes” of autonomous vehicle systems. CYNGN integrates a number of different sensors, LiDAR included, into its hardware arrays and software tools, which is one heck of a pivot for the mobile phone OS-maker formerly known as Cyanogen.

But there are other problem spaces for these sensor companies, including Nauto’s smart dashcam, which gathers location data and detects distracted driving, or Autotalks’s DSRC technology for vehicle-to-vehicle communication. (Back in April, Crunchbase News covered the $5 million Series A round closed by Comma, which released an open-source dashcam app.)

And unlike some of the full-stack providers mentioned earlier, many of these sensor companies have established vendor relationships with the automotive industry. Quanergy Systems, for example, counts components giant Delphi, luxury carmakers Jaguar and Mercedes-Benz and automakers like Hyundai and Renault-Nissan as partners and investorsInnoviz supplies its solid-state LiDAR technology to the BMW Group, according to its website.

Although radar and even LiDAR are old hat by now, there continues to be innovation in sensors. According to a profile of Oryx Vision’s technology in IEEE Spectrum, its “coherent optical radar” system is kind of like a hybrid of radar and LiDAR technology in that “it uses a laser to illuminate the road ahead [with infrared light], but like a radar it treats the reflected signal as a wave rather than a particle.” Its technology is able to deliver higher-resolution sensing over a longer distance than traditional radar or newer LiDAR technologies.

Can startups stack up against big corporate competitors?

There are plenty of autonomous vehicle initiatives backed by deep corporate pockets. There’s Waymo, a subsidiary of Alphabet, which is subsidized by the huge amount of search profit flung off by Google . Uber has an autonomous vehicles initiative too, although it has encountered a whole host of legal and safety issues, including holding the unfortunate distinction of being the first to kill a pedestrian earlier this year.

Tesla, too, has invested considerable resources into developing assistive technologies for its vehicles, but it too has encountered some roadblocks as its head of Autopilot (its in-house autonomy solution) left in April. The company also deals with a rash of safety concerns of its own. And although Apple’s self-driving car program has been less publicized than others, it continues to roll on in the background. Chinese companies like Baidu and Didi Chuxing have also launched fill-stack R&D facilities in Silicon Valley.

Traditional automakers have also jumped into the fray. Back in 2016, for the price of a cool $1 billion, General Motors folded Cruise Automation into its R&D efforts in a widely publicized buyout. And, not to be left behind, Ford acquired a majority stake in Argo AI, also for $1 billion.

That leaves us with a question: Do even the well-funded startups mentioned earlier stand a chance of either usurping market dominance from corporate incumbents or at least joining their ranks? Perhaps.

The reason why so much investor cash is going to these companies is because the market opportunity presented by autonomous vehicle technology is almost comically enormous. It’s not just a matter of the car market itself — projected to be over 80 million car sales globally in 2018 alone — but how we’ll spend all the time and mental bandwidth freed up by letting computers take the wheel. It’s no wonder that so many companies, and their backers, want even a tiny piece of that pie.

BMW, GM, Ford and Renault launch blockchain research group for automotive industry

Car makers BMW, General Motors, Ford and Renault are the big names behind a new group announced today to explore the potential of the blockchain in the automotive and mobility space.

MOBI — the Mobility Open Blockchain Initiative — launches today with over 30 founding members that also include Bosch, Blockchain at Berkeley, Hyperledger, Fetch.ai, IBM and IOTA. The group has a fairly broad goal of making transportation “safer, more affordable, and more widely accessible using blockchain technology.”

The blockchain has the undoubted potential to impact a range of industries. The distributed ledger component and smart contracts, in particular, could reshape the way organizations and products use and consume data. Along those lines, MOBI said its scope of focus varies from payments, data tracking, and supply management, to consumer finance and pricing, and more futuristic areas like autonomous vehicles and ride-sharing systems.

It isn’t the first time automotive firms have looked at the blockchain. Toyota is already doing its own research, Renault has joined the R3 research consortium, and Daimler is part of the Hyperledger project from the Linux Foundation. With MOBI, however, the group is focusing entirely on the automotive space and potential use cases rather than automotive as one of a number of industries.

“Blockchain and related trust enhancing technologies are poised to redefine the automotive industry and how consumers purchase, insure and use vehicles,” Chris Ballinger, who is MOBI’s first chairman and CEO, said in a statement.

“By bringing together automakers, suppliers, startups, and government agencies, we can accelerate adoption for the benefit of businesses, consumers and communities,” added Ballinger, who was formerly CFO and director of mobility services at the Toyota Research Institute .

Members of the organization’s board include Joseph Lubin, founder of ConsenSys and a co-founder of Ethereum, and Brian Behlendorf, executive director of Hyperledger .

Here’s when Ford will stop making most of its cars

Over coming years Ford intends to stop selling most of its cars in North America. This plan would leave just the Mustang and upcoming Focus Active as the only traditional car it sells while crossovers, SUVs and trucks make up the rest of its lineup. The news was abruptly revealed in Ford’s latest quarterly financial release and left many questions and here’s the answer to at least one of them.

The Focus, Taurus and Fiesta will be the first to go. Ford will end production on the Focus in May 2018, the Taurus in March 2019 and the Fiesta in May 2019. The mid-size Fusion will stick around a bit longer.

As for the upcoming Focus Active, as of right now, the vehicle will be assembled in China and imported to the United States.

Ford’s CEO laid out a cost reduction plan in late 2017. This plan calls for Ford to cut operating costs by $14 billion. The culling of sedans and small cars saves Ford around $5 billion.

“We’re going to feed the healthy parts of our business and deal decisively with the areas that destroy value,” Hackett said. “It’s been easy to identify what’s wrong and what we need to do about it. The hand-wringing maybe that has been around in our business is gone. We’re starting to understand what we need to do and making clear decisions there.”

The company’s financials are seemingly improving, too. Revenue increased 7 percent to $42 billion over 2017 levels with Ford making $1.7 billion in the first quarter of 2018, an increase of 9 percent.

“Everything is on the table,” said Bob Shanks, Ford chief financial officer. “We can exit products [and] markets. We will do that. That work has really gained traction. We have looked at every single part of the business. It’s a very complex endeavor. We are determined to turn this business around right throughout the whole company. There’s more work that’s underway.”

It’s likely jobs will be lost from the reduction of cars but most production lines will also be retooled for new vehicles. Ford is going all in on crossovers and SUVs, which will have to be built somewhere.

Say goodbye to nearly all of Ford’s entire car lineup: sales end by 2020

On Wednesday, Ford dropped a bombshell during its Q1 earnings call: it’s going to stop selling almost all its cars in the US. The Mustang will remain on sale, as will the Focus Active, a model that won’t debut until next year. But kiss goodbye to the Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, Taurus, and C-MAX. Instead, the company will focus almost exclusively on SUVs, crossovers, and trucks in the US domestic market.

Ford’s President and CEO Jim Hackett cited the declining popularity of the car—which the company pioneered more than a century ago—as the reason for the decision. “We are committed to taking the appropriate actions to drive profitable growth and maximize the returns of our business over the long-term. Where we can raise the returns of underperforming parts of our business by making them more fit, we will. If appropriate returns are not on the horizon, we will shift that capital to where we can play and win,” he said.

As we learned earlier this year, Ford has redesigned Explorer and Escape SUVs coming next year, with a reborn Ford Bronco plus another unnamed crossover coming soon after. And it still plans to expand its line-up of battery electric vehicles and plug-in hybrid EVs, launching six by 2022.

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Ford to stop selling every car in North America but the Mustang and Focus Active

Ford today announced it will phase out most cars it sells in North America. According to its latest financial release, the auto giant “will transition to two vehicles” — the Mustang and an unannounced vehicle, the Focus Active, being the only traditional cars it sells in the region. Ford sees 90 percent of its North America portfolio in trucks, utilities and commercial vehicles. Citing a reduction in consumer demand and product profitability, Ford is in turn not investing in the next generation of sedans. The Taurus is no more.

The press release also talks about a new type of vehicle, though it sounds like a crossover. This so-called white space vehicle will “combine the best attributes of cars and utilities, such as higher ride height, space and versatility.”

Currently, Ford sells six sedans and coupes in North America: the Fiesta, Focus, Fusion, C-Max, Mustang and Taurus. This lineup hits multiple segments, from the compact Fiesta to the mid-size Focus, C-Max and Fusion to the full-size Taurus. The Mustang stands alone as the lone coupe.

It’s likely Lincoln’s sedans will also disappear, though this was not explicitly stated in today’s press release. Lincoln currently sells the mid-size MKZ and full-size Continental — both share platforms with Ford counterparts. If Ford is phasing out development of sedan platforms, Lincoln will likely suffer, too.

This reduction in traditional cars was a long time coming. North America consumers have increasingly turned to crossovers, trucks and SUVs over sedans and small cars. A trip to any parking lot will likely produce more evidence to this movement. There are several factors involved, from more fuel-efficient and better-equipped trucks and SUVs to improved safety ratings and ride qualities of these vehicles.

Ford also today reaffirmed its commitment to bringing hybrid-electric powertrains to the F-150, Mustang, Explorer, Escape and upcoming Bronco.

This announcement comes several weeks after Ford explained in broad terms its love affair of trucks and SUVs. Ford estimates that SUVs could make up as much as half the entire U.S. industry’s retail market by 2020, and that’s why it’s shifting $7 billion in investment capital from its cars business over to the SUV segment. By 2020, Ford also aims to have high-performance SUVs in market, including five with hybrid powertrains and one fully battery-electric model.

With this big hybrid push on the SUV side, Ford expects to go from second to first-place in the U.S. hybrid vehicles market by sales, surpassing current leader Toyota by 2021, thanks also to the forthcoming hybrid Mustang and F-150.

The sedan was long a staple for Ford. The Lincoln Continental defined the ’60s. And then there was the Ford Galaxy, which was available in countless variations for nearly 20 years. Then in the ’80s came the LTD, Crown Victoria and Taurus. Ford even went rally racing with its cars, namely the Escort and later Focus. But while all these nameplates rose and fell, there was another always present: The Mustang.

Ford’s little pony turned 54 in April 2018. The Mustang has been in production since 1964 and seems ready for yet another generation of drivers. The car has been reinvented several times and will likely be reinvented several more before its nameplate is retired. For now, though, the Mustang is here to stay.