Ford Adds Laser Maker to Driverless-Car Effort

Argo AI LLC, a driverless car developer controlled by Ford Motor Co., has purchased a company that makes laser systems needed to operate cars without human intervention, an important step for a conventional Detroit auto maker looking to boost its role in shaping the industry's transformation.
 Argo AI said Friday it is buying Cranbury, N.J.-based based Princeton Lightwave Inc. for an undisclosed price, a move that provides Ford with more immediate access to so called lidar systems that use lasers to create a 3-D view of the world. The move comes on the heels of the purchase of a small lidar startup by General Motors Co.'s Cruise Automation driverless car unit.
 After spending decades farming out an increasing amount of work to independent suppliers, major auto makers are taking a different path when it comes to creating autonomous-driving systems. Lidar, for instance, is a system that could come from a third party supplier that may not move at the speed that car companies require.
 “The component providers are not moving fast enough,” Bryan Salesky, Argo chief executive, said in an interview ahead of the purchase announcement. “Because they're not moving fast enough we feel like we need to take more of a lead role in getting the right sensor out there.”
 Ford announced earlier this year it acquired control of Pittsburgh-based Argo AI, committing to $1 billion in investment. The Dearborn, Mich., auto maker aims to have commercially viable driverless cars by 2021, and Ford Chief Executive Jim Hackett has said the company is studying the best way to deploy the technology.
 On Thursday, Mr. Hackett suggested to analysts that a test deployment in a market may occur next year. Ford is racing against a long list of competitors in both the auto and tech industries aiming to perfect driverless cars.
 Along with GM, Toyota Motor Co., Volkswagen AG and Alphabet Inc. are among those spending an increasing amount of resources on the project. Lidar is a key component in helping auto makers or tech firms meet their autonomous vehicle targets. Many industry have said it is difficult finding a company to produce enough of the devices.
 Owning lidar development in-house could allow the Argo team to work more closely to integrate its abilities into the autonomous vehicle software. It is a path forged by Google-parent Alphabet's self-driving unit Waymo, which claims to have lowered the cost of its lidar by 90%.
 Princeton Lightwave, founded in 2000, has more than 30 employees and already sells sensors to clients in the telecom and defense industries. The company's website says its lidar is capable of identifying objects at 350 meters, or nearly a quarter of a mile, traveling at 60 miles an hour—an impressive distance for the technology.
 “I'm not just buying an idea or some interesting [intellectual property] that may or may not play out,” Mr. Salesky said. “I'm really getting a very knowledgeable team that knows how to build these products.”
 Dozens of companies are racing to develop lidar—which stands for light detection and ranging and works by bouncing lasers off objects to create a 3-D view of the world—but large-scale production hasn't kicked in yet.
 Velodyne LiDAR Inc. in January opened a new factory in San Jose, Calif., to ramp up production with the aim of making more than a million sensors there next year. Last year, Ford invested $75 million into Velodyne as part of an effort to lower the cost of the sensors to between $300 and $500 a unit. The first Velodyne sensor cost $75,000, too much for mass production on cars.

Ford's Argo AI has bought a firm that makes laser systems needed to operate cars without intervention

Regulators Probe Loose Ford Fusion Steering Wheels

U.S. regulators are investigating complaints of loose steering wheels in Ford Motor Co.'s Fusion cars, the latest batch of the auto maker's vehicles to come under scrutiny for safety concerns.
 The National Highway Traffic Safety Administration opened an investigation after receiving three complaints of steering-wheel fastening bolts loosening in 2014-16 Fusion midsize sedans, according to government documents disclosed Friday.
 The agency's preliminary evaluation covers roughly 841,000 cars. Officials haven't received reports of any crashes or injuries, and Ford hasn't launched a recall.
 “We are cooperating with the agency, as we always do,” a Ford spokeswoman said. “Customers with concerns should contact their local dealer.”
 One vehicle owner reported that the steering wheel completely detached from the steering column while attempting to turn into a gas station, according to the agency's report opening the probe. Two other complaints reported that the bolt attaching the wheel to the steering column loosened during operation and had to be retightened at a repair shop.
 Investigators said they planned to assess the scope, frequency and possible safety risks arising from the alleged defect. In the midst of delivering hefty profits amid booming truck sales, Ford has nonetheless been dogged by safety and quality concerns. The auto maker earlier this month recalled 1.3 million 2015-2017 F-150 pickup trucks and 2017 Super Duty trucks in North America to address faulty door latches. The recall is expected to result in a $267 million hit to Ford's fourth-quarter profit.
 Ford separately this month also recalled some newer F-150 trucks to address gearshift problems. The trucks are the bestselling vehicles in the U.S. and helped Ford earlier this week report a 63% surge in third-quarter profit to $1.6 billion.
 Still, Ford booked a $295 million charge in the first quarter stemming from fire risks in some SUVs and vans, and faulty door latches on some car models. In the second quarter, problems with the drive shaft in transit vans cost $142 million.
 Ford is separately offering voluntary fixes to owners of 1.4 million late-model Explorer SUVs to address complaints of exhaust fumes leaking into vehicle cabins.  

—Mike Spector




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