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Ford Says It Will Have Self-Driving Cars by 2020, Smart Home Integration Coming Too

Daniel Howley
Technology Editor

Ford took over CES 2016 Tuesday with a handful of major announcements that position the automaker as a tech company as much as a vehicle manufacturer.

From self-driving cars to vehicle-controlled drones, here’s a rundown of what Ford announced at this year’s biggest technology show.

Self-driving cars by 2020

The biggest piece of news is that Ford expects to have some form of autonomous vehicles on the road by 2020, meaning we’re just five short years away from living in the transportation future we were all promised when we were kids. Well, with the exception of flying cars and hoverboards, but pretty darn close!

According to Ford’s director of advanced engineering, Jim Buczkowski, the Society of Automotive Engineers ranks autonomous driving systems on a six-level scale, with zero being no automation and five being fully automated.

Ford, Buczkowski explained, is aiming for level 4 vehicle automation, which means that the cars will be able to drive themselves without driver intervention within certain geographic areas and in specific weather conditions.

Related: More coverage of CES 2016.

So the cars likely wouldn’t drive themselves in the snow, for example, but they would on a clear, sunny day.

To reach its goal of offering self-driving cars in five years, Ford announced that it has tripled its autonomous vehicle-testing fleet, making it the largest such fleet among major automakers. The company is also using a new, advanced LiDAR (light detection and ranging) system, produced by Velodyne.

The sensor, which is a little bigger than a hockey puck, is used to create real-time 3D maps of a car’s surroundings. Basically, it’s a self-driving car’s eyes.

Controlling your smart home from your car

In addition to its autonomous-vehicle announcements, Ford also said that it is working with Amazon to incorporate the Echo smart home device into its cars. Using an in-car app, accessible through your vehicle’s touchscreen, you’ll be able to connect to the Echo unit in your house via its Alexa voice assistant.

All of that is to say you could one day — from your car — tell Alexa to turn on the lights in your house, open the garage door, check the locks, or even turn on the air conditioner on a hot day, and the Echo would make it happen.

This is all still very much in development, but an early look at the system helps to give us a good look at what Ford has in store for the future of vehicle connectivity.

Drones and cars working together

Then there’s Ford’s new interest in drones. That’s right, the automaker and drone maker DJI (they make the Phantom drone) are issuing a challenge to developers to help create a system that allows drones to work side-by-side with Ford vehicles.

The idea is to allow a driver with a drone-equipped vehicle to launch and control a drone from within the car’s cabin using Ford’s Sync AppLink or the open source OpenXC system.

But before you start arming your own truck with anti-drone missiles, you should know that Ford and DJI are launching this program to make it easier for emergency services personnel to reach and survey disaster areas from the sky without putting themselves in harm’s way.

Outside of disaster areas, the technology, Ford believes, could also be used by farmers to check on their crops, forester services to scour large areas for missing people, and even contractors to survey construction sites.

Like Ford’s Amazon Echo integration, the drone technology is still in its early stages and isn’t going to hit the market for some time.

Email Daniel at dhowley@yahoo-inc.com; follow him on Twitter at @DanielHowley or on Google+.

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