WASHINGTON — The black Ford Fusion hybrid with a tiara of laser sensors looped twice through a four-mile stretch of a changing Washington, passing a trendy food hall and a sagging strip mall as it vacuumed up data to build a citywide network of self-driving cars.

The map engineers inside last week were part of an advance team working with Ford, which will announce Monday that it plans to deploy a driverless fleet that will carry customers and make deliveries for businesses across all corners of the nation’s capital.

Automakers and technology companies touting safety and economic benefits from autonomous vehicles are racing to improve their systems and carve out real estate across the country, putting down stakes in cities from San Francisco to Boston as public proving grounds for technologies that remain distrusted by many.

Ford will begin testing self-driving cars in the District of Columbia early next year and plans to launch commercially in Washington, Miami and other unnamed cities starting in 2021. That’s a longer timeline than some other firms and communities, a reality leaders from Ford and the city both described as beneficial.

“We realized very quickly that we can launch a small number of cars in an area right away – but then not create a healthy business that helps the city,” said Sherif Marakby, president and chief executive of Ford Autonomous Vehicles.

Waymo, the company formed out of Google’s nearly decade-old self-driving car project, is already carrying selected families and transit employees in self-driving minivans in the Phoenix area, along with safety chaperones in the back seat.

Brian Kenner, the District of Columbia’s deputy mayor for planning and economic development, said he’s pleased “frankly, to not be the tip of the spear, full on, in autonomous vehicles.”

District officials met with counterparts from Pittsburgh and representatives from Uber, as part of a multicity effort to share experiences, Kenner said. After a driverless Uber killed a pedestrian in Tempe, Arizona, in March, both Pittsburgh and Uber “have taken at least a half step back” in their aggressive push to see the technology deployed, he said.

Federal policy on driverless vehicles has been largely laissez-faire. There are no federal safety standards for the technology or requirements that companies certify, via third parties or on their own, that their self-driving systems are safe.

Carmakers and tech companies have pushed Congress to bar states and localities from regulating self-driving cars themselves, saying they need to stop a “patchwork” of regulations that would stymie innovation.

Ford will employ the same rigor the company has used over the past century to ensure that its driverless technology is safe, Marakby said.

Last week, the mapping specialists from Argo AI, a self-driving start-up that Ford is backing with a $1 billion investment, drove the autonomous Ford Fusion, in manual mode, through Northeast Washington.

Using nine cameras and a pair of lidar units, which make precise measurements using laser beams, they recorded roads, curbs and streetlights. All those 3-D snapshots will be refined, augmented and used by the driverless car to place itself in the world.

Beyond questions of technology are those about who stands to gain in a driverless world.

Washington officials say Ford’s work with the city will help achieve long-standing government goals.

Ford says it will run hundreds of vehicles in some cities, and more than a thousand in others, depending on demand.

The company would not disclose an expected cost for consumers. But Ford told investors that the cost of operating a driverless transportation service would be about $1 per mile.

That’s compared with about $2.50 for an Uber; between $1.50 and 70 cents for a personal car; and 30 cents for mass transit, according to Ford’s calculations. Consumers often pay less per mile for Uber Pool and other services with multiple passengers.

How Ford’s fleet – along with those of its competitors – will affect today’s traffic woes remains unclear. Driverless fans predict that fewer commuters will drive alone, while skeptics warn of empty “zombie” cars plugging up streets between gigs.

There’s also the question of Washington’s ailing Metrorail system. Uber and Lyft have already siphoned away business.

Marakby said he’s sure the project will head in unexpected directions. “The reality is we don’t know exactly where we’re going to end up,” he said.

But whether it’s connecting underserved areas in Washington, or helping his elderly father, who can no longer drive, get around his community, Marakby said he expects that this work will make a major contribution.

“I truly believe that, in automotive history, it’s one of the times there’s a true disruption – or I would call it opportunity – to change mobility the way that Henry Ford changed it 100 years ago.”

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