Ford CEO Jim Farley Says True Self-Driving Is Just ‘a Few Years’ Away

If Ford succeeds in its vision, it would become the first major U.S. automaker to achieve this level of autonomy

Ford CEO Jim Farley
Ford CEO Jim Farley says it’s only a few years away before drivers can take their hands off the wheel. JEFF KOWALSKY/AFP via Getty Images

Ford today (June 3) announced the reopening of the Michigan Central Station building in Detroit, which the company purchased in 2018 and spent six years restoring to transform it into a “30-acre technology and cultural hub.” A major piece of that technology, Ford CEO Jim Farley said, has to do with self-driving. Farley boldly predicted that the 111-year-old auto giant is only a few years away from achieving level 3 autonomous driving, which would allow drivers to take their hands off the steering wheel some of the time. That level of automation has not been achieved at scale by any mainstream carmakers in the U.S. yet.

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We never could give people time back like we will with level 3 three autonomy,” Farley said in an interview with Bloomberg Television today. “We still have a lot of execution to do. I’d say we’re just a few years away from another vibrant period for the company and, as leaders, we see it before everyone else sees it.”

There are five levels of autonomous driving as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). According to the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, level 3 autonomy, also known as conditional autonomy, occurs when “the car can control both its speed and steering at the same time, and can monitor its surroundings, so it is able to drive on its own under certain conditions.” Humans are still required to pay attention while driving, the agency warns. 

Just last year, Mercedes-Benz became the first automaker to gain U.S. approval for its level 3 autonomous driving system, dubbed Drive Pilot. That system is highly conditional, however, with the autonomy kicking in at only under 40 mph on approved freeways (during the day, during clear weather, with no construction, and with the driver visible by a camera). In other words, it’s only helpful in a limited number of traffic jams.

But Farley said level 3 autonomous driving could be coming to Ford in just a few years, a feat that would mark a major leap for the company, which shuttered its level 4 autonomous investment, ArgoAI, in 2022 to focus instead on less advanced driver assistance systems. 

“With the financial challenges hitting auto manufacturers this past year, Ford, like others, is establishing a fresh position,” Bhumi Bhutani, a co-founder of the car superapp Way.com, told Observer. Farley mentioned an interest in seeking subscription revenue through this technology—a strategy mirroring Tesla (TSLA)’s subscription plan for its Autopilot and FSD software. 

If Ford succeeds in its vision, it would become the first major U.S. automaker to achieve this level of autonomy, surpassing rival General Motors, whose Super Cruise driver assistance technology is classified as level 2 autonomy. At this point, GM and Ford are neck-and-neck in the race to autonomous driving, with Ford’s existing BlueCruise also at level 2. Even Tesla, whose CEO Elon Musk has promoted full autonomy as a key priority for years, remains at level 2 autonomy .

Farley said Ford is “well into the messy middle of the most transformational time other than the Model-T.” The company is heavily investing in all the technologies that enable the leap to the next level of autonomy, he added. The Michigan Central Station building will become a flagship location for technological innovation at Ford. Built in 1913, the building was erected just five years after Ford invented the iconoclastic Model T in the same city. Now, the building is getting a new life at a time when life in a Ford looks much different than it once did.

Ford CEO Jim Farley Says True Self-Driving Is Just ‘a Few Years’ Away