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The Robots Are Coming To Miami: Ford Rolls Out Self-Driving Car Outpost

Ford Autonomous Vehicles, a subsidiary of Ford Motor Cos., announced last week that it will be opening a command center west of Miami International Airport, a key step in the company's goal to offer ride-hailing and commercial delivery services by 2022.

Ford already has an autonomous vehicle terminal in Wynwood, where it and tech partner Argo AI (in which Ford invested $1B) operate a self-driving test fleet. The command center will have both office and warehouse space and be home to expanded functions like customer relations, public engagement, business development, research, safety evaluations and testing.

One of Ford's fourth-generation autonomous vehicles.

Shortly after Ford launched in Miami, an Arizona woman was killed by an autonomous car (which had been modified by a third party, not one of the self-driving vehicles from Ford and Argo AI, which have not been involved in any fatal accidents). At least two people have died in the state in semi-autonomous Teslas. Safety remains an issue for the industry. There are no federal regulations for autonomous vehicles and state rules are not uniform, a Wired magazine article reported in 2019. Before the cars can become commonplace, sensors need improvement, as do algorithms that anticipate a variety of traffic scenarios.

Florida governments have put out the welcome mats hoping to lure autonomous car and tech companies. Miami Mayor Francis Suarez and Miami-Dade County’s Department of Transportation and Public Works Director Alice Bravo have promoted the industry. Gov. Ron DeSantis in 2019 signed a bill allowing cars with no humans to operate on Florida roads, a move some critics see as irresponsible.

“There is nothing stopping a Chinese tech company from beta-testing its autonomous 18-wheelers at 7:30 a.m. in an elementary school zone," Dale Swope told Medium.

Ford Miami AV Market Manager Alex Buznego told Bisnow that Ford in 2018 chose Miami as the first global city where it would launch autonomous vehicles because of its climate and challenges.

"Miami has modern infrastructure and is relatively flat but has a variety of road users including: pedestrians, bikes, mopeds, scooters, rollerbladers, cars, buses and trucks," Buznego said via email.

The cars have been tested in Wynwood, Downtown, Brickell and Miami Beach. They began delivering Domino's pizzas in 2018. Ford has similar testing programs in Austin, Texas, and Washington, D.C. 

Buznego said the company has been collaborating with Miami-Dade County and doing public outreach and pilot programs, as well as working with the local real estate community to think through how self-driving vehicles will impact the future.

"We’ve learned that every city is unique and Ford believes that if you want to successfully launch a self-driving service that adds meaningful value to cities and their residents, you can’t just drop into a city and start rolling cars out onto the streets," Buznego said. "You need to develop a comprehensive understanding of what people and local businesses would find useful."

Voyage set up an autonomous taxi pilot program in The Villages. Volvo tested a semi-autonomous tractor-trailer on the turnpike. Google subsidiary Waymo announced last year it would be testing its autonomous vehicles in Miami, especially under rainy conditions. 

Right now, Ford is using a test fleet of about 30 Fusion Hybrids and will slowly integrate its Escape Hybrids. These vehicles have Level 4 automation and are currently being tested with two safety drivers inside the vehicle. Ford will make a decision before commercialization to determine whether the safety drivers are removed from the vehicle.

Buznego said there is no vehicle on the market today that is either fully autonomous or has Level 4 automation.

"There are some vehicles with 'driver assist' features that can assist a driver for specific portions of a trip, but all vehicles available for purchase today require that a human driver maintains focus on the road to take over if needed," Buznego said. "The industry reserves the term 'self-driving vehicle' or 'autonomous vehicle' for vehicles that do not require a human driver to be engaged in the act of driving ... That is what we are building."

Buznego declined to comment on whether Ford Autonomous Vehicles has explored a partnership with Amazon, but he said it was in talks with various potential partners. 

As for potentially putting human drivers out of work, Buznego said autonomous vehicle operations will still require a human touch. The company employs 60 people already and is working with the Miami-Dade Beacon Council to train people for autonomous vehicle jobs of the future.

 CORRECTION, 11:00 A.M. ET Nov. 5: An earlier version of this story stated that a woman in Arizona was killed by a Ford autonomous vehicle. The story has been updated to clarify this was a Ford Fusion that had been modified by a third party. Also, Ford is currently using Fusion Hybrids that have Level 4 automation, not Level 3.