A few weeks ago at the New York Auto Show I had lunch with Elena Ford, Vice President for Consumer Experience for the Ford Motor Company she made the bold claim that Ford would have a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles in dealer showrooms by 2020. From the looks of this recent night driving test in Arizona, it appears her words were much more than mere bluster.
Mounting their proprietary LiDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) technology on a specially equipped Fusion, Ford engineers ran the car over desert roads in the dark of night with no lights on the car or street to guide it. Unlike other automakers that use cameras to detect lines on the road, Ford first creates a comprehensive 3D map complete with information about the road, road markings, geography, topography and landmarks like signs, buildings and trees. The vehicle uses LiDAR pulses to pinpoint itself on the map in real time. Additional data about traffic, pedestrians and other obstacles from radar gets fused with that of LiDAR to allow the car to operate without a driver.
Ford engineers monitored the test with night vision goggles from inside and outstide the Fusion. According to Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist and engineer, “Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness. As I rode in the back seat, I was following the car’s progression in real time using computer monitoring. Sure enough, it stayed precisely on track along those winding roads.”
While the company is using Ford vehicles to develop and test the technology, more often than not these types of innovations debut on more expensive luxury cars, then find their way into mainstream products. I would expect to see Lincoln leading the self-driving charge for the Ford Motor Company in the very near future.