While the word “automated cars” are like sacrilege to car fans and driving enthusiasts, most of the driving population will likely welcome (fully or nearly) self-driving vehicles with open arms. For Ford, the field is not entirely new, as The Blue Oval was an active participant in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-controlled autonomous vehicle challenges in 2004, 2005 and 2007, the year Ford extended its efforts to include the University of Michigan.
And earlier this week, Ford unveiled a Fusion Hybrid automated research vehicle that is intended to progress future automated driving and other advanced technologies. According to a Ford news release, the research vehicle is the “result of an ongoing project that builds on more than a decade of Ford’s automated driving research”, the Fusion will be used to test current and future sensing systems and driver-assist technologies with the goal of advancing the development of new tech with Ford’s suppliers in order to apply them to the next generation of vehicles. In other words, the Fusion Hybrid will serve as a test bed for all kinds of advanced automated vehicle technologies.
“The Ford Fusion Hybrid automated vehicle represents a vital step toward our vision for the future of mobility,” said Ford Executive Chairman Bill Ford. “We see a future of connected cars that communicate with each other and the world around them to make driving safer, ease traffic congestion and sustain the environment. By doing this, Ford is set to have an even greater impact in our next 100 years than we did in our first 100.”
As Ford enthusiasts likely known, today’s Ford vehicles have the ability to park themselves, understand a driver’s voice commands, detect dangerous driving situations, and assist with braking in emergencies. Ford says that these technologies as well as others could allow “a person to be driven to a destination”, but that the driver can take over “control of the wheel if necessary.”
“In the future, automated driving may well help us improve driver safety and manage issues such as traffic congestion and global gridlock, yet there are still many questions that need to be answered and explored to make it a long-term reality,” said Raj Nair, group vice president, Ford Global Product Development. “With the automated Ford Fusion Hybrid research project, our goal is to test the limits of full automation and determine the appropriate levels for near- and mid-term deployment.”
Ford says that the Fusion Hybrid builds on driver-in-control studies held at Ford’s VIRTTEX driving simulator, where researchers study how to merge “the capabilities of human and automated drivers to create a seamless, integrated experience.” Notably, creating a fully-autonomous vehicle that’s available to the public is about more than simply having the technology and implementing it accordingly, as there are long-term societal, legislative, and — of course — technological issues raised by a future of fully-automated vehicles.
Ford’s Vision Of The Future Of Transportation
Introduced in its Blueprint for Mobility plan at the 2012 Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Ford’s vision for the future of transportation by 2025 and beyond, “along with the business models and partnerships needed to get there”, is comprised of three separate timeframes:
Today: “Ford is working on improving technology already used in vehicles on the road. This includes functions that alert drivers to traffic jams and accidents, and technologies that assist people when they are parking and when driving in slow-moving traffic.”
Mid-term: “vehicle-to-vehicle communications will begin to enter into the mainstream. This will include some autopilot capabilities, such as vehicle “platooning,” where vehicles traveling in the same direction synch up their movements to create denser driving patterns.”
Long(er)-term: “vehicles will have fully autonomous navigation and parking. They will communicate with each other and the world around them, and become one element of a fully integrated transportation ecosystem. Personal vehicle ownership also will change as new business models develop. The benefits include improved safety, reduced traffic congestion and the ability to achieve major environmental improvements.”
Why Fusion Hybrid?
Ford elected to use the Fusion Hybrid as the test platform for the new research effort thanks to the wide array of advanced driver-assist technologies, including:
- Blind Spot Information System
- Active park assist
- Lane-departure warning
- Adaptive cruise control and collision warning with brake support
- Lane Keeping Aid
- Active City Stop
These technologies, which Ford labels as “the building blocks for the future of fully automated driving”, aren’t unique to the Fusion research vehicle, as they are already offered on many Ford vehicles today. In North America, these technologies can be found on the Focus, C-MAX hybrids, Fusion, Taurus, Escape, Explorer and Flex; in Europe, these technologies are available on Ford C-MAX, Mondeo, S-MAX and Galaxy.
The research vehicle takes these existing and available technologies and adds four scanning infrared light sensors called LiDAR (for Light Detection And Ranging) — that scan the road at 2.5 million times per second. LiDAR uses light in the same way a bat or dolphin uses sound waves, and can bounce infrared light off anything within 61 meters (200 feet) to generate a real-time 3D map of the surrounding environment. LiDAR sensors can detect and track objects that are dense enough to redirect light, whether stationary or moving. Ford adds that the sensors are so sensitive, that “they can sense the difference between a paper bag and a small animal at nearly a football field away.”
And here’s where it gets less less straight-forward. Ford, along with other automakers, can do wonders as it relates to in-vehicle technology, but The Blue Oval is also dependent on other partners across many industries to develop things like the necessary infrastructure to support a sustainable transportation system. As of this writing, Ford has partners with State Farm and the University of Michigan’s robotics and automation research team.
As Ford develops unique components that allow the Fusion research vehicle to employ high levels of automation, the University of Michigan is leading the development of sensor-based technologies that aid in the logic and virtual decision making necessary to help the vehicle understand its physical surroundings on the road. UofM is doing this under the direction of faculty members Ryan Eustice and Edwin Olson.
According to Ford, “the university’s researchers are processing the trillions of bytes of data collected by the vehicle’s sensors, from which they can build a 3D model of the environment around the vehicle” with the goal of helping the vehicle and the driver make appropriate and safe driving decisions.
State Farm, meanwhile, has been working with Ford to “assess the impact of driver-assist technologies to determine if the technologies can lower the rate of rear collisions.” Ford’s ability to create safer cars and safer drivers can positively affect the nearly 62,000 fatalities in traffic accident (roughly 34,000 in the U.S. and 28,000 in Europe).
The Motrolix Take
Safety. That is truly what the goal of automated/autonomous transportation is all about. Those 62,000 deaths is a truly eye-opening number, and that’s just for the U.S. and Europe, with the number for the entire planet likely (and unfortunately) hitting the 100,000 mark. Sure, better space utilization and higher efficiency will likely be the secondary results of autonomous driving, but greater safety is most definitely leading the charge. In that regard, we’re anxious to hear more about the headway Ford and its partners can make with the Fusion Hybrid research vehicle.