Ford and Miami to form test bed for self-driving cars

A self-driving vehicle from Ford and Ford partner Argo Al in Miami, Florida Ford is making Miami-Dade County its new test bed for self-driving vehicles. Argo AI already has a fleet of cars in the area making the highly detailed maps that are necessary for self-driving. Ford also will establish its first-ever autonomous vehicle terminal in Miami, where it will learn how to service and deploy its test fleet. (Ford Motor Co. via AP)
Updated 28 February 2018
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Ford and Miami to form test bed for self-driving cars

DETROIT: Ford Motor Co. is making Miami-Dade County its new test bed for self-driving vehicles.
The automaker and its partners — Domino’s Pizza, ride-hailing company Lyft and delivery company Postmates — are starting pilot programs to see how consumers react to autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. Self-driving startup and Ford partner Argo AI already has a fleet of cars in the area making the highly detailed maps that are necessary for self-driving. Ford also will establish its first-ever autonomous vehicle terminal in Miami, where it will learn how to service and deploy its test fleet.
More services will likely be introduced as the partnership goes on, including Chariot, an app-based shuttle service owned by Ford. It’s all part of Ford’s effort to find viable business models for fully autonomous vehicles and get them on the road by 2021.
“This is, I think, the future of any automotive company or mobility company. If a majority of the world’s population is going to be living in cities, we need to understand how to move those people around,” said John Kwant, Ford’s vice president of city solutions, who inked the deal with Miami-Dade.
Ford isn’t the first automaker to run test fleets of autonomous vehicles. General Motors Co. will start testing autonomous vehicles in New York City this year, while Nissan Motor Co. is launching an autonomous taxi service in Yokohama, Japan, next week. Technology companies like Waymo — a division of Google — are also testing self-driving vehicles on public roads in Phoenix, San Francisco and Singapore, among other cities.
But the partnership with a specific metropolitan is less common. Both sides envision a deep relationship where Ford can help Miami-Dade solve specific issues, like how to most efficiently move people from its suburbs to its downtown monorail, and Miami-Dade can offer solutions like dedicated lanes for automated vehicles or infrastructure projects like advanced traffic lights that can send signals to connected cars.
“We want to be on the forefront of this because we want to give our people choices,” said Carlos Gimenez, the mayor of Miami-Dade County, which is home to 34 cities and 2.7 million people.
Sherif Marakby, Ford’s vice president of autonomous vehicles and electrification, says the company also intends to work closely with local businesses. The company wants to learn, for example, how a florist might use an autonomous delivery vehicle.
“Autonomous vehicle technology is interesting, but it’s a whole lot more interesting with a viable business model,” he said.
The city of Miami is the fifth-most congested in the US, according to a recent traffic study by the consulting firm Inrix. After more than a century of selling people vehicles, Kwant says Ford now wants to figure out ways to move people more efficiently in order to cut down on that time in traffic.
Sam Abuelsamid, a senior research analyst with the consulting firm Navigant Research, says Ford and others must figure out how to make money on self-driving cars.
“If this does take off, if people do adopt automated vehicles and use them for ride-hailing, that’s going to result in a decline in retail vehicle sales,” Abuelsamid said. “They need to figure out, if we’re going to have a decline in the number of vehicles we sell to consumers, how do we keep our business stable?“
Kwant says the testing will also help Ford determine what its future self-driving vehicles need to look like and how they must perform.
“If you don’t have steering wheels, how do you begin to use that package space? How do you begin to look different in terms of carrying more people?” he said.
Ford won’t say how many vehicles it will have on the road in Miami-Dade, but says it will be Ford’s largest test bed for autonomous vehicles by the end of this year.
All of the vehicles will have backup safety drivers. Domino’s experimental vehicles aren’t even technically autonomous; they’re equipped to be, but for now they have actual drivers. The windows are blacked out so customers can experience how to get pizza from the car without dealing with a person.
Miami will give Ford new challenges. Previously, it tested Domino’s cars in suburban Michigan, where parking wasn’t an issue. But in busy Miami Beach, the cars will have to figure out where they can go to allow apartment-dwellers to safely retrieve their pizzas. An autonomous delivery vehicle from Postmates might have to switch between Spanish and English commands when it picks up a meal and delivers it to a customer. Self-driving Lyft vehicles will be tasked with mapping out the best places to wait for customers without causing more traffic headaches.
Kwant says Ford will announce more city partnerships as this year progresses. But Miami-Dade was a natural, since it has good weather, lots of different urban and suburban terrain and support from Gimenez and other government leaders.
Gimenez, who began talking to Ford in 2017 at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, says he’s not worried about consumer acceptance of self-driving cars. He thinks his community will embrace them as companies prove that shared autonomous vehicles can be cheaper and safer than regular ones.
Gimenez says self-driving vehicles also can potentially improve traffic flow without significant new investments in roadways. They can travel more closely together, for example, because they’re always watching the car in front of them and can brake automatically.
“That’s why I’m really high on this technology,” he said.


INTERVIEW: Dan Balmer on steering Aston Martin beyond Bond in the Middle East

Dan Balmer
Updated 17 November 2018
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INTERVIEW: Dan Balmer on steering Aston Martin beyond Bond in the Middle East

  • The Middle East will be a key market for the iconic UK car maker’s second century, says regional chief Dan Balmer
  • Aston has been around for more than 100 years, but has embarked on an ambitious “second-century strategy” under group CEO Andy Palmer

The name is Balmer. Dan Balmer.

The new president of Middle East business for Aston Martin Lagonda, the iconic British car maker beloved by James Bond, is grateful for the glamorous legacy of the fictional super-spy, but also conscious of the need to move on.

“We’ve been with Bond for 50 years, and he has been a real asset for us. But we have a team internally called ‘Beyond Bond.’ If we want to grow the brand audience, into the family and female markets, we have to look beyond the cars that Bond drives,” said Balmer.

That move away from some aspects of Aston’s heritage is reflected across the whole company. Aston has been around for more than 100 years, but has embarked on an ambitious “second-century strategy” under group CEO Andy Palmer.

The company that is emerging will be different, a luxury brand rather than a mere maker of fast boys’ toys; it will be increasingly global, with the Middle East playing a central role; and it will — hopefully — be sustainable, in both a financial and environmental sense.

British actor Roger Moore stands beside an Aston Martin car during a 'James Bond photocall' at Bletchley Park in Milton Keynes, on October 17, 2008. (AFP)

Palmer’s strategy is to steer the group away from the boom-and-bust cycle — it went bankrupt seven times in its first century. He pulled off an essential part of that strategy with an initial public offering (IPO) on the London Stock Exchange last month, which valued the company at $5.6 billion.

Aston will continue to make fast cars, but they will increasingly be more fuel efficient and even electric; and it will put its name to other luxury merchandise — plans for apartments and speed boats are well advanced. Next on the luxury list of Aston-branded items are submarines and vertical take-off aircraft.

Bond, with his love of both the high life and high-tech gadgetry, would probably approve of the strategy. “We’re not hawking the brand around — you won’t see us doing aftershaves and umbrellas. But customers want to buy our cars because they want to buy into beauty, and we’re stretching that now into other areas,” Balmer said.

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BIO: 

BORN 

1976 Southampton, UK.

EDUCATION

Design technician apprentice, Rover Group.


CAREER

•BMW design engineer.

•Rolls-Royce Motor Cars, general manager in Asia-Pacific. 

•Aston Martin Lagonda, president for the UK and
South Africa.

•Aston Martin Lagonda, president for the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey.

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He knows a thing or two about luxury marketing and car design, having previously worked for Rolls-Royce in Asia, based out of Singapore. But now the challenge is to extend the Aston business in the Middle East in a new division within the global set up — covering the Middle East, North Africa and Turkey (MENAT).

Reflecting Aston’s traditional regional business hub in the region, he will be based in the UAE, but the headquarters has been moved from Dubai to Abu Dhabi, where the MENAT HQ was officially inaugurated last week.

Balmer feels that Dubai’s reputation for flash glamor is “a thing of the past,” but also believes that the UAE capital is more in tune with the Aston image. “Aston has an understated elegance and that is also how we feel about Abu Dhabi. It is the capital, recognized as the center of the financial scene, the big decisions are made here, and with Yas Island (the venue for the big Formula 1 Grand Prix later this month) it is a great location for motor sports.”

The Aston Martin DB10, built exclusively for the James Bond film "Spectre," is displayed at the 2015 Los Angeles Auto Show in Los Angeles, California, November 19, 2015. (AFP)

Track racing is still a big thing for Aston, not least because many of its cars are too fast to be driven flat out on roads, but also because it helps the company maintain its high-speed image against competitors such as Ferrari and Lamborghini, the UAE’s sports cars of choice.

Under the second-century strategy, Aston can offer the DB11, the DBS (“a boot in a suit” says Balmer), the Vantage and the Valkyrie as its “overtly aggressive” cars to rival the Italians, and will also soon begin to produce a range of mid-engined cars to take on the likes of Porsche and Mercedes.

Saudi Arabia is big on collectors’ cars, like our Vulcan. But we need to grow the brand.

 

“We are breaking out of our conservative shell. These are track-based products, but meant to be driven on the road, true sports cars,” Balmer said.

But the really radical product is yet to come, and will figure prominently on Middle East roads when it arrives, some time in 2020. Aston has hitherto held off entering the SUV market, which is the fastest-growing sector in the world’s biggest markets, like the US and China.

The DBX is a luxury SUV, a bit bigger than most on the roads now, with five doors and elegant lines. It is aimed at the upmarket family market, and seems a natural fit for the Middle East, which has been SUV-crazy for decades. 

Balmer thinks it will become Aston’s biggest seller in the region. “We just have not had the offering in that segment before, but in the Middle East a majority of luxury car buyers would be SUV, with sports cars a weekend plaything,” he said.

In this file photo, an Aston Martin DB5 is displayed as part of an exhibition dedicated to James Bond at the main hall of La Vilette in Paris. (AFP)

He is relishing the prospect of unleashing the DBX on Saudi Arabia. Aston has been in the Kingdom a long time, with a long-standing partner the Hajji Husein Alireza group and showrooms in Jeddah and (more recently) Riyadh, to be followed by an outlet in Alkhobar.

But Saudi Arabia has not lived up to the potential of its big wealthy population. It ranks behind the UAE, Kuwait and Qatar, roughly alongside Turkey in Aston’s regional sales rankings.

“Saudi Arabia has more opportunity for us. Because of the sheer weight of wealthy individuals it means there are more people who will buy our cars there. Saudi Arabia is big on collectors’ cars, like our Vulcan, and the other beautiful cars we produce like Vanquish and DBS. But we need to grow the brand,” Balmer said.

 

 

“We need to do an education job in Saudi Arabia, both in terms of what Aston stands for in the market and the new products as well. I think Saudis will go for the idea of DBX, and that’s where the key focus will be for us.”

He believes the Saudi market is perhaps more conservative than the UAE in terms of colors and models, but there is potentially a far bigger market among Saudi nationals than Emiratis.

Saudis buy Rolls-Royce cars in big numbers, and having worked for the leader in motoring luxury Balmer appreciates the difference between marketing Rolls and Aston. “They differ in the customer type. Aston buyers tend to be really into their cars. They are ‘petrol heads’ but also discerning.

“Rolls customers know their cars too, and might have an Aston in the garage as well, but they’re buying a Rolls-Royce as more a statement purpose — for business use, or a reward in life. An Aston is more a purchase of emotion and desire,” he said. Whether as a reward or out of emotion, buying an Aston is a considerable outlay. The average price ticket is around $175,000, and such an impulse purchase could easily be put off if personal economic circumstances took a downturn.

In the Middle East, where economies are tied to the oil price, that makes Aston subject to the vagaries of the global crude market. “What’s happening in the region is that governments are diversifying away from oil. (Saudi Arabia’s reform program) Vision 2030, for example, is a big change and good news for us. It will eventually take the volatility away from the macro economic environment. But we will always be dependent to some degree on global economic forces. China now drives the rest of the world in many respects,” Balmer said.

The IPO was an opportunity for Aston’s long-term backers — financial institutions from Italy and Kuwait — to realize some profits on their investments. The share sale raised no new money for expensive research and development, which some analysts criticized.

“There was no massive cash injection because all our new projects were already invested. And we’re making profits. But the IPO secures the long-term future of the company,” Balmer said.

In difficult global markets, the shares have been trading below the issue price since day one, but recently two big investment institutions — Merrill Lynch and Goldman Sachs — put them on the “buy” list. If they achieve sufficient value to be included in the main FTSE 100 list, Aston will be the first car company for 30 years to be on the UK’s main trading board.

That would be something of a triumph for Palmer and the second-century strategy, but Aston has another finishing line in sight before that: The Abu Dhabi Grand Prix. “We’ve got a number of things planned around the race, not least winning it,” Balmer said.