Have you heard of the Ford GT?
It’s a sexy, mid-engined supercar that went racing and won its class in the grueling 24 Hours of Le Mans endurance race. Maybe you’ve heard of the Ford Mustang Shelby GT350 or the Ford Focus RS? All these cars have high-horsepower motors and a focus on driver engagement and speed. In case it’s not clear yet, it seems like Ford doesn’t like being left behind.
While these fast cars may be appealing to enthusiasts, the real future of the company is in autonomous driving. It’s a big bet for the company and it’s not the only one gambling on technology that seems plucked out of sci-fi. Not only are other automakers also trying to figure out self-driving cars, but the cleverest minds in computer hardware, software and artificial intelligence are working on it, too. Google, Apple, Tesla and Amazon among many others have tons of money and brainpower invested into figuring out how cars will drive themselves without human intervention.
Ford has the same idea. The automaker has a goal of delivering a Level 4 self-driving car by 2021 for ride-sharing applications. In order to achieve Level 4 designation, the cars will feature no steering wheel or pedals.
There are about four elements in play when it comes to self-driving cars: the technology behind the systems, the regulations, the economics behind these vehicles, and the adoption of them. The first of those, the technology, is what we can experience right now.
Ford has a number of self-driving prototypes that we had a chance to test during a recent event at the automaker’s Dearborn campus. They’re just like any other Ford Fusion Hybrid you’ve seen before, but fitted with a number of compact sensors and packed full of advanced computers. They’re also driving on public roads. While the sensors are a big part of the self-driving recipe, so are maps. These self-driving cars feature a detailed map that includes stop signs, speed limits, crosswalks, intersections and other static information.
The car also features cameras, radar and LIDAR (a system like radar but uses light instead of radio waves). The radar and LIDAR help paint a thorough three-dimensional map in real time around the car, which is compared to that previously mentioned static map. The cameras are passive and are used to recognize pedestrians, traffic lights and other things that aren’t detected by the other sensors.
My test ride around the Ford campus was great in terms of showing the capabilities of the self-driving system. But, to put it bluntly, it was boring. Fortunately, I had two Ford engineers who were great at explaining exactly what was going on.
The car drives like a very smooth but cautious driver, pretty much how I drive whenever my parents are in the car. It takes no risks when making a left-hand turn through an intersection. It carefully (and quickly) calculates how far away the oncoming car is and decides whether it will edge into the middle of the intersection to wait out the traffic and complete the turn, or wait for a bigger gap in traffic. The car I was in decided to wait the traffic out for a whole light signal cycle, something a human driver would never to.
It maintains the speed limit during the drive, coolly ignoring the Dodge Charger tailgating it. It notices pedestrians coming up to a stop sign intersection and stops to let them pass. Actually, at one point, a pedestrian wanted the car to go first, but the car’s lack of speech and body language meant that everyone in the car had to motion for the pedestrian to cross first. Who knows what was going on in that pedestrian’s head, and who knows if in 20 years that same interaction would be as quirky.
Interestingly, the car did have a slight hiccup during my ride. While driving through an empty road, the car suddenly applied the brakes and slowed down. The engineers chuckled a bit as the car didn’t come to a stop, but cautiously passed what it thought was an obstacle. It could have been a shadow, or maybe a pothole, but it was clear to everyone in the car that there wasn’t anything dangerous on the road. The engineers said this was the second time that the car had noticed something in this specific spot, and that they’ll analyze the data, which is being constantly recorded through the trip, to find out what could have triggered the sudden deceleration.
It was a minor mistake, and had I been riding with a human behind the wheel, it’d be one that probably would have gone unnoticed. People can be distracted by everything: the phone buzzing in the cupholder, the passengers in the rear seats, the fluffy dog walking alongside its owner down the street or even the radio playing your favorite tunes. In this case, the car was distracted by something its sensors or data found, and that information is supposed to be pure and unbiased. I’d consider it an honest mistake, but if such a mistake led to more drastic issues, we’d be saying something far more critical. This is definitely an issue Ford has to sort out before its autonomous cars become mainstream.
On the topic of gathering data and sensors, Ford is quick to point out that its LIDAR will be getting a serious upgrade in the near future. Velodyne, the supplier of these sensors, is set to deliver a unit that has a range of 200 meters, while also being smaller. In addition to all these sensors, the car’s computing system is beefed up, too, a necessity in order to process all this real-time data.
There’s no doubt that self-driving cars are coming and the technology is already here and being improved upon. What’s next is adoption, and while recent polls show that most Americans are skeptical of autonomous vehicles, Ford is still promising self-driving taxis for 2021, and Uber is currently testing its own self-driving program. Regulations are another hurdle, and one that’s being handled by the National Highway Traffic and Safety Association. NHTSA is drafting a set of guidelines that will help in designing and ensuring safety on the roads. Finally, there’s the cost of these self-driving cars. All those sensors and computers won’t come cheap, but they’ll improve and get more affordable over time.
It’s interesting to see all the different aspects involved in self-driving vehicles, but the advantages are all there. The technology can reduce traffic, improve safety on the roads and even mitigate the need to even purchase a car, but a lot of development still has to be done before it becomes mainstream. While Ford is leading the race on the tracks and winning the hearts of enthusiasts thanks to cars like the Ford Focus RS, Shelby Mustang and that awesome Ford GT, the company also doesn’t want to be left behind in the upcoming autonomous age.