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New Ford CEO Poised for Self-Driving Car Leadership

New Ford CEO Poised for Self-Driving Car Leadership

Ford Motor Co. is, in a way, putting a mouth where its money is. This explains the sudden departure of Mark Fields, a long-time veteran of the Blue Oval brand, and the promotion of Jim Hackett, a relative newcomer to the automaker, who recently served as the head of Ford's self-driving initiative.

Ford has made no secret about wanting to transform itself into a mobility company rather than a traditional automaker. The reason is simple: The automotive world is splintering apart into new directions thanks to ride-hailing companies, like Uber and Lyft, along with self-drive vehicle research being conducted by tech giants, such as Apple and Waymo. Ford doesn't want to be left behind in a world where technology could radically alter car ownership.

In February, Ford spent $1 billion to purchase Argo AI, a relatively small Pittsburgh-based tech company specializing in artificial intelligence and self-drive vehicle research. Ford also recently revealed an updated version of its self-driving Fusion sedan, which is particularly noteworthy for being less ungainly than many other autonomous drive vehicles covered in large, awkward-looking sensor arrays. Most recently, Ford even won recognition as being the current leader in the race to bring self-driving vehicles to production. 

Out of a field of 18 tech firms and automakers, Ford ranked first in a crowded and highly competitive field that included GM, Tesla, BMW, Uber and Honda, to name just a few.

Why Should I Care? "The next decade will be defined by the automation of the automobile, and autonomous vehicles will have as significant an impact on society as Ford's moving assembly line did 100 years ago." That quote came from none other than Mark Fields, only a few short months ago when Ford announced its purchase of Argo AI. That doesn't exactly sound like someone with their head in the sand when it comes to embracing and advancing new technology.

Money talks, however, and Ford stock is significantly down from where it stood when Fields became CEO in 2014. Since then, Ford sales have ridden along the current hot streak the entire industry is enjoying — thanks primarily to the red-hot market for SUVs and crossovers. The Ford F-150 has also continued a nearly four-decade run as the best-selling vehicle in the U.S. Yet Fields is out and Hackett is in. Case closed.

What does this mean for Ford as a whole? Expect more Silicon Valley-style acquisitions and news along the lines of tech partnerships, along with an even greater push toward working with ride-hailing companies and other firms interested in rewriting the rulebook of car usage and ownership. Ford is widely credited with putting much of the world onto four wheels thanks to the introduction of the tough-as-nails (and nearly as cheap as a bucket of them) Model T. Roughly a century later, Ford wants to be on the frontlines of a car world that looks poised to reinvent itself.

Uber and Waymo Feud Starts to Simmer Down

The long simmering battle between Uber and Waymo, the self-driving research arm of Google, appears to be settling down. Waymo accused Uber of profiting from stolen tech secrets taken by former Google employee, Anthony Levandowski, when he left to start his own tech firm. That company, called Otto, was quickly bought by Uber for more than $600 million. The acquisition, and the addition of Levandowski to head Uber's autonomous vehicle Used Engine ering team, raised a number of red flags — most notably amongst Waymo's legal department.

According to USA Today, a judge has now ordered Uber to return approximately 14,000 documents which Levandowski downloaded prior to leaving Google. However, in the ruling, it was also determined that Uber would not have to abandon or postpone any of its current research into self-driving vehicles. 

Why Should I Care? Uber is certainly heaving a huge sigh of relief, as the threat of having to slow down (or shut down) its significant investment in autonomous vehicles could have signaled a death knell to the company's tech ambitions. The documents taken by Levandowski appear not to have been directly tied to any of Uber's current research vehicles. Yet the fact remains that the former Google employee did take secrets and, in the coming weeks, Levandowski could face criminal prosecution.

This legal saga isn't quite over, though it appears Uber as a company has escaped relatively unscathed for now.

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