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Ford Continues Its Push to Show Driverless-Car Leadership

By John Rosevear – Feb 22, 2016 at 6:40PM

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Ford didn't say much about driverless cars until last year. But now, CEO Mark Fields is talking up the Blue Oval's research efforts in a big way -- most recently in a keynote in Barcelona on Monday.

Ford Fusions equipped with prototype self-driving systems began testing on snowy roads in Michigan late last year. Image source: Ford Motor Company.

In what might be intended as a strong signal to investors, Ford (F 2.52%) continues to emphasize its renewed push to develop a fully driverless car for the mass market. 

What's happening: Speaking at the Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, CEO Mark Fields once again explained that Ford is transitioning from an automotive company to "an auto and a mobility company," with major investments in a number of high-tech initiatives -- including a big effort to develop a self-driving car.

What it means: Ford's hardly alone in pushing to develop a self-driving car, of course. Daimler's (NASDAQOTH: DDAIF) Mercedes-Benz and Tesla Motors have already brought some limited self-driving features to market. Most of Mercedes' luxury rivals, including BMW, Audi, and General Motors'Cadillac, are expected to follow suit over the next year or two.

But Ford is taking a different approach. Like rival Toyota (NYSE: TM), which sees driverless-car technology as an important safety innovation, Ford is determined to bring it to the mainstream. Speaking at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas in January, Fields said the first self-driving Ford won't be a luxury car. "It will be designed to serve millions of users," he said. 

This is a change for the Blue Oval. Two years ago, Fields hinted to me that he was skeptical of self-driving technology, or at least of its prospects in the mass market in the near term. He said Ford likely wouldn't try to be first to market with the technology, but it would make it available if and when its customers were ready to pay for it.  

However, mindful of the possibility of "disruption" from Silicon Valley, Fields changed course last year. Now, Ford is spending billions on its "Smart Mobility" plan, which includes a big and very visible self-driving-car effort

Ford's PR folks are already making a bid to portray the Blue Oval as a leader in the push for driverless cars. The company's statement on Monday noted that Ford was the first automaker to test fully autonomous vehicles in winter weather, including snow, and that it will soon have the largest fleet of self-driving test cars in the business. 

What's next: Some automakers, including GM and Mercedes-Benz, have been talking about self-driving technology for several years now. Ford wasn't really among them until 2015, although the company was known to be doing some work with driverless-car systems. Over the last year, and increasingly in the last few months, Ford has made a big show of its determination to be a major player in the future world of interconnected, self-driving cars. (It's not the only one: That's also true of Toyota, among others.) 

That show hasn't yet done much for its stock price, which may be lagging on well-publicized concerns by some Wall Street analysts that Ford (and most other established automakers) are ripe for "disruption" by new high-tech entrants. 

It may be that Ford needs to show the results of its efforts rather than talk about its plans, and that will take time. But investors will be watching carefully to see if Ford can deliver on Fields' ambitious plan to transform the 113-year-old automaker. 

John Rosevear owns shares of Ford and General Motors. The Motley Fool owns shares of and recommends Ford and Tesla Motors. The Motley Fool recommends BMW and General Motors. We Fools may not all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.

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