Why your first self-driving car ride may be in a Ford

Ford Motor is in pole position when it comes to benefiting from the coming age of autonomous vehicles.

That’s the conclusion of a study released Monday by Navigant Research, which sells its in-depth surveys of energy and transportation markets to suppliers, policymakers and other industry stakeholders.

The Dearborn-based automaker took the top spot by demonstrating that it has the strategic vision and execution capabilities to both develop automated driving systems as well as deploy them across a range of mobility platforms.

Many automakers are targeting 2021 for a roll-out of autonomous vehicles that likely will be part of a ride-sharing network. Widespread personal ownership of autonomous vehicles is considered far off due to high purchase and maintenance costs.

“Many traditional OEMs were initially skeptical about the commercial prospects for automated driving,” Navigant’s study says. “Most notable was Ford under its previous CEO Alan Mulally, who frequently spoke publicly about how people actually enjoy driving. However, through a combination of strategic investments and development of supporting business models, Ford and other OEMs have begun to move to the forefront.”

In close second was General Motors, followed by Renault-Nissan Alliance and Daimler. Navigant’s previous survey, in 2015, did not include technology companies, who in the past few years had made big strides in not only on the tech front but also in forging ties with automakers.

Waymo, Alphabet’s new name for its long-running Google car project, came in seventh in the most recent study, while Tesla was twelfth and Uber was sixteenth. Apple was not included because it has never publicly acknowledged having an autonomous car research team.

Although Waymo’s project started nearly eight years ago, Navigant’s focus on both strategy and execution of self-driving tech assigned low scores for its production strategy and its sales and marketing plans. Waymo currently has a partnership with Fiat Chrysler for the production of 100 Chrysler Pacifica minivans, which will help speed up Waymo’s tech development cycle.

Uber meanwhile was docked points for not having a good production strategy or technology. The company currently is battling in-house culture issues as well as fending off a lawsuit from Waymo charging that its LiDAR tech is built off stolen Waymo data. Uber also scored low on staying power.

“It’s not clear there’s a clear path to profitability for ride-hailing companies,” says Sam Abuelsamid, one of the authors of Navigant’s study. “They may lose money because they have to pay drivers, but remember they have no capital expenditures. What happens to their business model if they have to spend tens of billions on autonomous vehicles?”

Abuelsamid says it’s more likely that that automakers will get into the ride-hailing game than it is for Uber and Lyft to get into the auto manufacturing business.

​Ford Motor, which was outside of the top five in a 2015 Navigant survey, raced to the fore based partly on a range of partnerships forged in the past year.

Those include a $150 million co-investment with Baidu in Velodyne, makers of light detection and ranging systems (LiDAR), an undisclosed investment in 3D mapmakers Civil Maps, and a $1 billion bet on self-driving tech startup Argo AI. Ford also has invested in Chariot, a ride-sharing van network that conceivably could go autonomous.

“I’d call this an 11-year overnight success story,” Raj Nair, Ford Motor’s chief technology officer last week told USA TODAY, citing as a starting point Ford’s entry into the early DARPA Grand Challenge for robotic cars.

Nair acknowledged that ride-hailing as a business looks very attractive “if you automate the driver, because then the value proposition looks very different.”

Ford Motor has been testing a fleet of Fusions in real world situations, including night-testing in Arizona as well snow testing in Michigan.

Nair says the company still plans to roll out autonomous vehicles in 2021, but they would be SAE Level 4 vehicles, one level down from full autonomy. Level 4 cars can operate autonomously in fully mapped areas but would need human input in unmapped locations and in extreme weather that totally obscures visibility.

Navigant says a trio of factors could hamper the rapid development of self-driving vehicles.

They are a murky regulatory environment, where states seem to be taking individual initiatives while the industry awaits rulings from the new administration’s Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao; concerns about both reliability and cybersecurity in hackable robot cars; and the as yet unknown liability guidelines in the inevitable event of autonomous vehicle crashes and human injuries.

Follow USA TODAY tech reporter Marco della Cava on Twitter.  , USA TODAYPublished 5:02 a.m. ET April 3, 2017 | Updated 4:54 p.m. ET April 3, 2017