For years, the big guns kept their cards close to their chest when it comes to self-driving technology while Tesla basked in the glory of its functioning Autopilot system. But the major players are coming and Ford stepped up the fight at CES when it unveiled the latest autonomous Fusion.

The company has promised to bring us a car without a steering wheel or pedals in 2021 and CEO Mark Fields reiterated that serious statement of intent in Detroit.

There are two caveats that keep cropping up, though, and one of them makes a lot more sense than the other. Ford has consistently said that its cars won’t be free to roam the entire country and that it will limit its autonomy to pre-defined areas at first.

What does it mean? Actually, it means quite a lot.

Read: Ford will put Amazon’s Alexa right inside your car later this year

The ride-hailing scheme is first

Ford cannot sell you a car without a steering wheel and then tell you it can’t go to certain places, potentially including your house. That would be absurd. So Fields is actually talking about a ride hailing scheme and that will probably be confined to urban centers.

It has a pilot scheme in progress with Uber in Pittsburgh right now and that looks to be the priority for the short-term. Uber even set up a facility in Detroit and we speculated at the time that seemed purely for Ford’s benefit.

So this means that Ford has to have two programs in place, or it will leave full autonomy for a later date. While the likes of Tesla will sell you a car that will take you anywhere and is fitting autonomous hardware to every car, Ford is making no such promise.

There’s a lot of hyperbole, but read between the lines and we’ve got a glorified taxi service and not much more right now. Ford, though, might simply be playing it safe.

Ford Smart Mobility has made major progress

The company’s master plan is known as Ford Smart Mobility and while other marques have gone public, with operational systems, the world’s sixth biggest car manufacturer hasn’t exactly been sitting on its hands.

The Blue Oval was the first manufacturer to hit the road at MCity, the University of Michigan’s urban test track and it was also the first to test autonomous cars at night. This year Ford has slowly rolled out 30 test Fusions on the roads of California, Arizona and Michigan. By the end of the year it should have 90 cars out there providing data.

Ford has gone its own way, too, and while we won’t get a chance to pitch the Fusion against the likes of the Tesla Model 3 and Mercedes’ systems for some time, there is a war brewing. That’s because Ford has gone big on LiDAR and a series of other systems that could potentially make the best known autonomous programs on the market look like children’s toys.

Read: Ford will show off a new self-driving Fusion Hybrid at CES 2017

The Blue Oval has made major acquisitions

The company has bought into Velodyne, arguably the industry leader in low-cost LiDAR systems that are practical for passenger cars. It has also bought SAIPS, an Israeli company focusing on computer vision, machine learning and AI.

Ford has also taken an exclusive deal with Nirenberg Neuroscience, which claims to have created a mechanized version of the human eye. All of this tech and more will combine with advanced 3D mapping, courtesy of Civil Maps. We can only speculate right now, but this could all combine to give Ford an edge.

The company will keep its meat and potatoes roots in Detroit, but it is also expanding in Silicon Valley. More than 130 researchers work at the Palo Alto facility, a contemptuous spit from Tesla’s headquarters, and the Blue Oval is working with 40 tech startups on the future of self-driving tech.

Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years

“Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years,” said Raj Nair, Ford’s executive vice president of Global Product Development and CTO. “We have a strategic advantage because of our ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world.”

The work is paying off

It’s already paying off. At the Detroit Motor Show Ford unveiled a new, sleeker hybrid Fusion with a slimmed down LiDAR system that has two sensors, instead of four, built into the A-pillars. Three optical cameras sit in a roofrack, together with one under the windshield and it also comes equipped with short and long range radar. It’s all hooked up to a supercomputer in the trunk that can process a terabyte of data per hour. To cope with the demand for pure power, Ford had to use a hybrid.

This looks like a functioning car now rather than a Frankenstein-esque testbed. It’s still just a test car, but it looks like it could roll off the production line tomorrow. That roof rack needs to go, and it will, but this is a much slicker machine than we’ve seen before from Ford.

Ford Fusion equipped with self driving tech Engadget

One part of the plan we’re struggling with

There’s just one part of Ford’s plans that we can’t reconcile and there’s no official word. If Ford is planning on Level 4 autonomy in 2021, then that means the car will, in fact, come with a steering wheel and pedals. Level 4 autonomy allows for human intervention, which flies in the face of Ford’s assertion that we’ll have cars without controls. That’s Level 5.

We won’t get an official word on this yet, so it’s time for an educated guess. We predict at least two autonomous models in 2021. One will be the city car, the ride hailing, self-driving taxi that could easily be Transit-based. The other will be a car that you can drive, that indeed you must drive outside he geofenced areas, but it will come with a raft of driver assist features on the highway.

That car will hook into the advanced system in the cities and take over entirely. Indeed, it might be able to take you across the country. Industry insiders have reservations about how the self-driving cars can handle poor weather like fog and  heavy rain, even though Ford has already shown that its Velodyne-sourced system can handle snow.

But Velodyne has time to ensure the system can cope with any conditions and Ford can tune the entire suite of ‘senses’ over the next four years and might simply be playing it safe with the geofencing concept.

Every car could get the hardware

Ford could well roll out autonomous hardware on every single car, just like Tesla is now, and simply flick the switch for a firmware update when the time is right. It has plans for 13 EVs by 2020 and they could all come equipped with the self-driving hardware that should be fit for purpose by then.

So Ford has worked feverishly behind the scenes, but now it’s starting to show its hand. We have the feeling it’s a seriously good one.

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