Raj Nair, Ford - Edwin Olson, University of Michigan discuss autonomous vehicles at NAIAS 2016
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The Ford Motor Company shared some exciting news about the future of their autonomous vehicle project at the North American International Auto Show (NAIAS/  #FORDNaias). In a fireside chat with Raj Nair, Ford Executive Vice President of Product Development and Chief Technical Officer and Edwin Olson, Associate Professor of Computer and Engineering at the University of Michigan (UofM) details were released about recent winter driving tests plus more about the technology behind these driverless vehicles.

While it all seems a little far fetched that driverless cars will appear on our roads anytime soon, in reality, Ford believes that someone will have a Level 4 autonomous vehicle in commercial use within geo-controlled areas with appropriate weather within the next for years. For example, they may be vehicles for hire which travel only within a specific geographic area which would appeal to tourists or commuters. Or a vehicle may be offered to consumers which has Level 4 controls as well as manual controls when the weather isn’t conducive or when it travels outside of the preprogrammed geolocation.

Autonomous Vehicles – Solving Navigation Issues Caused by Inclement Weather

Ford itself is in the race to get these driverless vehicles on the road, but so are many other car companies. Climate issues are a huge stumbling block for level 5. Ford currently has the largest fleet of test autonomous vehicles, and they’re working to solve the weather stumbling block by partnering with UofM on laser navigation that will replace the need for vehicles to be able to read roadway sensors. Solving this problem is an important step on the road to making autonomous vehicles a reality as roadway sensors can be blocked by snow, rain, and dirt.

To navigate snowy roads, Ford autonomous vehicles are equipped with high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road and what’s above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co
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FORD CONDUCTS INDUSTRY-FIRST SNOW TESTS OF AUTONOMOUS VEH… To navigate snowy roads, Ford autonomous vehicles are equipped with high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road and what’s above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co

What  Ford and UofM are working on involves high-resolution 3D maps which provide complete information about the road. Ford’s autonomous vehicles use LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) which can locate the vehicle right down to the centimeter. The LiDAR unit does this by emitting short pulses of laser light that create a real-time high-def 3D image of its surroundings.

FUSION HYBRID RESEARCH VEHICLE 3D MAP 3D Mapping aerial of what the Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research vehicle sees (in purple) as it navigates the roadway and identifies obstacles. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co
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FUSION HYBRID RESEARCH VEHICLE 3D MAP
3D Mapping aerial of what the Ford Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research vehicle sees (in purple) as it navigates the roadway and identifies obstacles. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co

The vehicle creates a map while driving through the test environment in favorable weather. Then software automatically annotates physical features like traffic signs and buildings. This information is available to the vehicles when they cannot see the ground. By detecting the above-ground landmarks that were recorded earlier, they can pinpoint themselves on the map. Ford builds its own geo map data in-house and not through a 3rd party.

Why not just use GPS? Because it’s only accurate to several yards which isn’t enough to identify the vehicles location closely enough. It’s imperative that the vehicle knows its precise location. If you’ve ever used GPS while navigating in a large city, you’ve probably experienced issues with it believing you’re on an adjacent freeway. That GPS overlapping could lead to disastrous results.

Ford is accelerating testing of its Fusion Hybrid Research Vehicle as the first automaker to test a fully autonomous vehicle at Mcity, the world’s first full-scale simulated urban environment at University of Michigan. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co
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FUSION HYBRID RESEARCH VEHICLE AT MCITY Ford is accelerating testing of its Fusion Hybrid Research Vehicle as the first automaker to test a fully autonomous vehicle at Mcity, the world’s first full-scale simulated urban environment at University of Michigan. Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co

Fusion Autonomous Vehicle Mcity Testing – Photo Credit: Ford Motor Co

Mcity Test Facility

Ford did their winter weather testing in Michigan at city that knows about winter driving. It was there that the car was introduced to Mcity, a full-scale simulated real-world urban environment covering 32-acres at the University of Michigan. While the storefronts may be fake, there are crosswalks, street lights, lane delineators, bike lanes, trees, curb cuts, sidewalks, hydrants, signs, traffic control devices. construction barriers and anything else one might find in the roadway. They’ve also provided a range of surfaces to test including asphalt, concrete, dirt, and simulated brick as well as multi-lane and single lane roads, ramps, tunnels, and roundabouts.

Ford’s Industry First Autonomous Vehicle Tests in Snow

Ford Autonomous Vehicles – Safety

Data Safety is, of course, an enormous concern for Ford. Currently, their test vehicles are not connected to the Cloud, and they won’t be until they have safeguards in place. While computer hackers have traditionally gone after banks and other financial institutions, it’s becoming more common that they are working on hacking car systems, so Ford wants to be sure they’ve done everything possible to prevent one of their autonomous vehicles from being taken over by a nefarious hacker.

Additionally, the cars normal safety systems will be in place. Safety features like electronic stability and traction control will work in unison with the autonomous driving software. In fact, Ford is working toward the day when your vehicle will be able to detect deteriorating road conditions and make the decision on whether or not to keep driving.”

What do you think about the race to get autonomous vehicles on the road? Is four years too soon or not soon enough for you?


I attended #NAIAS as a guest of the Ford Motor Co; however, all opinions are my own.