The big dream with autonomous vehicles is vehicles that can drive by themselves anywhere. Most commonly, we think of “robotaxis.” However, there are various types of autonomous vehicles in development for different purposes, at different scales, and with different pros & cons, and there are even some in operation in limited environments.
For example, Ford’s got a fun and helpful autonomous vehicle pilot program going on up in Detroit. Rather than delivering people from place to place, it’s delivering food — 10,000 pounds of food — to senior citizens who face mobility challenges.
Ford is using a low-speed autonomous vehicle on a fixed route that reminds me of the Navya autonomous shuttle that we’ve covered from time to time for at least 4 years. Clearly, it’s much easier to send a vehicle on a fixed route with some sensors to keep them on the road than it is to send a robotaxi to any corner of any city in the country. But that doesn’t mean having a driverless vehicle for specific needs where it can operate isn’t very useful and exciting. Further, in this case, the Ford autonomous shuttle is helping to serve the needs of disadvantaged elderly people. (Yes, it’s true that this is not normal Ford business and the funding for it comes from a philanthropic arm of Ford, Ford Motor Company Fund.)
In this case, the autonomous shuttle pilot vehicle comes from the Ford future tech autonomous vehicle team and Quantum Signal AI, which is a subsidiary of Ford. While the vehicle is fully autonomous, it will be monitored by a “safety driver” since this is indeed a pilot vehicle and pilot program. Additionally, there will be a remote operations team monitoring how things go from afar. If help is needed and the safety driver isn’t up to the task, or perhaps to test certain capabilities, the remote operations team can intervene.
As a cherry on top, the shuttle design comes from a local high school artist who won $5000 for the contribution. “An exterior design on the shuttle representing the Southwest Detroit neighborhood, created by Detroit School of Arts 12th-grader Brooke Snow, displays an inclusive message of community. Snow plans to use the $5,000 she was awarded for her design to pay for college expenses.”
For now, this is just a 6-month pilot program. “Located within the Michigan Central impact area where Ford is putting mobility innovation and community at its forefront, the six-month pilot is one of the first projects bringing the Michigan Central district to life. It is expected to provide 10,000 pounds of fresh food to the doorsteps of senior citizens who lack access to food due to mobility challenges,” Ford writes.
“We’re constantly thinking about how to expand our reach in communities for those who don’t have access to the most basic goods, like groceries or warm meals,” said Joe Provenzano, mobility director, Ford Motor Company Fund. “Bringing Ford’s mobility expertise together with local collaborations allows us to create innovative solutions that make communities stronger and people’s lives better.”
So far, 2.4 million pounds of food have reportedly been delivered by Ford Fund and Gleaners.
“CSI and Rio Vista Detroit Co-op are incredibly excited for this collaboration with Ford Motor Company,” said Eric Finkler, co-op liaison, Rio Vista Detroit. “For many seniors in this community, access to transportation is integral for retaining their independence, and the automated vehicle delivery program will help expand our members’ access to groceries, easing one barrier to independent living. Our hope is that with one less thing to worry about, our members can focus on family, coordinating doctor visits, handling day-to-day responsibilities, and spending time on things that they enjoy – like volunteering!”
Naturally, the aim is to learn from this experience an be able to eventually roll out other autonomous (truly autonomous, with no safety driver) shuttle services in more of Michigan and beyond.
All images courtesy of Ford.
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