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Ford waters down self-driving car hype: "we overestimated their arrival"

The industry has "overestimated the arrival" of autonomous cars

The automotive industry has "overestimated the arrival" of autonomous cars says Ford, as its global CEO joins the growing chorus of car makers watering down self-driving car hype.

America's Bloomberg is reporting that the Ford boss has conceded the technology required is more complex than initially thought, and any roll-out of autonomous vehicles will be "narrow" and "geo-fenced".

“We overestimated the arrival of autonomous vehicles,” Hackett said at an event in Detroit. “Its applications will be narrow, what we call geo-fenced, because the problem is so complex.”

While some automakers have now declared true level five autonomy (where are a vehicle can complete all trips under all conditions without any human intervention whatsoever) as impossible - most recently Nissan's NASA-trained Chief Technology Director, Maarten Sierhuis - Ford is still promising its first self-driving vehicle in 2021.

But the Blue Oval is instead saying that vehicle's applications will be limited to certain areas, with true autonomy unlikely to arrive while Hackett is still in charge of the company. And that's a huge call, especially given Ford is investing US$1 billion in artificial intelligence company Argo to speed-up its autonomous vision.

"When we break through, it will change the way your toothpaste is delivered,” Hackett says. “Logistics and ride structures and cities all get redesigned. I won’t be in charge of Ford when this is going on, but I see it clearly.

“When we bring this thing to market, it’s going to be really powerful.”

Hackett's is a different viewpoint to that of Nissan, where Sierhuis says a "human-in-the-loop system" is the only way autonomy will ever be achieved.

The Japanese brand is now aiming for vehicles that are mostly autonomous, but remain connected to a human-staffed control room that can issue the vehicle instructions should it encounter a situation it can’t deal with, like closed roads, private properties or dropping passengers at an airport.

Uber, too, is now taking a more watered-down approach to the technology, maintaining that full autonomy will eventually happen, but suggesting it's impossible to know exactly when.

"Self-driving cars are going to be in our lives. The question of when is not clear yet," says the brand's chief scientist, Raquel Urtasun. "To have it at scale is going to take a long time."

Will self-driving cars ever actually happen? Tell us in the comments below.