Since the ‘50s, the public has been questioning whether a fully autonomous car is really possible. It makes for good science fiction fodder, but the thought of cars that can drive themselves around like the cars in I, Robot hasn't seemed plausible — until now.
"A lot of the driving rules that expert drivers use, they're actually things that can be distilled into algorithms. We can make the autonomous vehicle have that knowledge," said Greg Stevens, Global Manager of Driver Assistance Research for Ford Motor Company.
But these vehicles aren't just programmed to drive like humans, they're programmed to drive better than humans. In fact, they'd be safer in many cases than human-operated vehicles not only due to eliminating factors like fatigue, distraction, alcohol and drugs, but also because the car would know how to be able to regain control of the vehicle in certain situations that the average driver wouldn't know how to do, simply because they haven't been trained for it.
Ford has spent the past decade researching autonomous vehicle capabilities, and the company recently announced it was ramping up its efforts by adding 20 Fusion Hybrid autonomous testing vehicles to its fleet. This effectively tripled the number of research vehicles Ford has at its disposal, making it the largest self-driving fleet amongst all automakers. The expansion builds on previous work, and is also a key element of Ford Smart Mobility, the company's plan to take connectivity and mobility to new heights. With around 30 testing vehicles now, Ford is able to accelerate the development and testing of its virtual driver software, which serves as the decision-making brain that directs all the vehicle systems.
Ford is using a new-generation sensor technology from Velodyne called the Solid-State Hybrid Ultra Puck Auto sensor that the company believes will make its autonomous vehicles the most advanced in the world. The sensors provide the precision necessary to map out and create real-time 3D models of the surrounding environment in both urban and rural areas. Veloydyne's latest lidar sensors also boast an extended range of 200 meters, making them the first auto-specific lidar sensors capable of handling a multitude of driving scenarios, helping advance the development and testing of Ford's virtual driver software.
For almost ten years Ford has been using Velodyne's lidar sensors, an innovation that revolutionized the autonomous vehicle landscape. The lidar emits short pulses of laser light in order to carefully scan the surrounding area millions of times per second. This precisely determines the vehicle's distance from other objects. Velodyne's smaller, more advanced sensors help bring the company one step closer to a production-ready vehicle. And the team at Ford is certainly eager to bring self-driving vehicles to the masses.
"The autonomous vehicle platform we're developing can be applied to any of the products we make, everything from a Focus all the way up to Super Duty, and that's really the power of Ford Motor Company, in that we make a lot of vehicles, and we can bring this technology to a lot of people," said Doug Rhode, Technical Leader of Autonomous Vehicle Integration for Ford Motor Company.
Ford will send one of its self-driving Ford Fusions out on California roads next year to continue testing.