Is New Patent a Signal of Ford Readying for Self-Driving Cars?

In another sign that self-driving cars are on the distant horizon, Ford Motor Co. has been granted a patent for an "autonomous vehicle with reconfigurable seats."

The patent calls for passengers in the front of the car to be able to turn their seats around and face those in the rear while the vehicle drives itself. In essence, it allows for future vehicles to serve as lounges for business meetings or social get-togethers.

A Ford representative acknowledged that the patent was filed by Ford Global Technologies LLC, a subsidiary that handles the automaker's intellectual property. "We're always innovating, and that's what you do when you innovate," Alan Hall of Ford told Design News . "You have to protect your IP." He added that such patents don't necessarily indicate any specific future product plans.

The patent is surprising in its breadth, especially considering that many automakers would want to adopt the concept if self-driving cars ever take off in a big way. It calls for a reconfigurable interior with motorized front seats that pivot and face rearward. It also describes how the rearward seat orientation would affect airbag operation.

The concept is reminiscent of a similar idea presented by Mercedes-Benz at the 2015 Consumer Electronics Show. The Mercedes-Benz F 015, which is targeted for launch about 2030, employs rotating chairs, which allow passengers to sit in face-to-face configurations, and "saloon doors" for easy ingress and egress. The F 015 concept also includes giant entertainment screens on the vehicle's interior walls.


MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Future Cars Will Have Radical Interior Designs

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Such futuristic concepts aren't likely to be used any time soon, however. Earlier this year, Lux Research Inc. published a study predicting that full autonomy would represent just a tiny sliver of the expected growth in advanced driver assist systems. "Partial autonomy is coming," Maryanna Saenko, author of the report, told Design News . "By 2030, it will very likely be common in mid- and high-level cars. But the idea of the car picking you up at your house, driving you anywhere, and dropping you off -- that's still a long way off."

MORE FROM DESIGN NEWS: Partial Autonomy Coming, Full Autonomy Still a Long Way Off

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Senior technical editor Chuck Murray has been writing about technology for 31 years. He joined Design News in 1987, and has covered electronics, automation, fluid power, and autos.

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