Ford Steps on the Driverless-Car Gas
Ford's vision for a driverless car future likely will materialize in phases. Vehicle-to-vehicle communications could become mainstream in the mid-term, with autopilot capabilities permitting vehicle "platooning." Cars traveling in the same direction would be able to sync their movements to create denser driving patterns. In the longer-term, cars could have fully autonomous navigation and parking.
12/13/13 3:52 PM PT
Ford on Thursday unveiled its Fusion Hybrid Research Vehicle, part of an ongoing research project on autonomous cars and other assisted driving technologies that can help lead to safer roads and less traffic congestion.
The research car is part of Ford's Blueprint for Mobility initiative, the company's plan to help integrate the automotive and telecommunications industries by putting more intelligent vehicles and transportation systems on roadways. The company is partnering with State Farm and researchers at the University of Michigan to further develop the car.
The Ford Fusion vehicle uses much of the same technology found in models of the car currently for sale, but it includes four cylindrical LiDAR detectors on the vehicle's roof. Those sensors constantly collect and process data in the nearby environment -- scanning 2.5 million times per second to create a real-time 3D map of their surroundings.
That detailed picture of the world around the vehicle is designed to guide the car to make smarter driving decisions. It could one day help to increase fuel efficiency and cut down on human driving errors, collisions and congested roadways, according to Ford.
Safer Cars, Safer Roads
Ford's autonomous vehicle initiative is one of several long-term research investments in the area.
Researchers are optimistic about potential benefits of autonomous driving technology to consumers, said Panagiotis Tsiotras, professor and director of the Dynamics and Control Systems Laboratory at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
"To begin with, autonomous vehicles do not violate traffic signs or speed limits. People with long commutes can instead spend the time reading or catch up with friends, family or work," he told TechNewsWorld.
"Elderly people in the U.S. and elsewhere are often prohibited from operating a motor vehicle after a certain age, thus reducing their mobility and quality of life. A fully autonomous vehicle will provide unprecedented flexibility in the lives of these people," added Tsiotras.
Before any of those features become mainstream, though, there's one far more important concern, said Edwin Olson, professor of computer science and engineering at the University of Michigan and one of the members of the team developing the sensor-based technologies for Ford's research vehicle.
"Our No. 1 priority, with all other goals a distant second, is safety," he told TechNewsWorld. "We want to reduce vehicle-related casualties. With almost 40,000 fatalities in the U.S. and millions worldwide -- and that's not counting injuries and property damage -- there's a huge opportunity for societal good by improving the safety of vehicles."
People who remain skeptical about the future of autonomous driving often voice concerns that a driverless car -- or at least, one that does the majority of the work for drivers -- seems dangerous or out of control, but Ford and other companies working on the technology are out to disprove those arguments, said Olson.
"I think we all have had close calls due to distraction or inattention -- on either our part or on another driver's part," he pointed out. "In the relatively short term, we can bring technology to improve safety of our roadways. Our research vehicle can see 360 degrees in every direction, and it doesn't get tired or distracted. We think it will make you a better driver."
Doubt isn't the only hurdle to clear before autonomous vehicles can go mainstream. There are legal issues to resolve, and costs must be slashed. However, smarter cars are the future of the industry, even if this innovation doesn't blossom overnight, said Olson.
"Vehicles have been getting more intelligent for decades," he pointed out. "Even antilock breaks represent a case where the vehicle makes decisions to help you drive better. Automated cars are a big step in the direction of enlisting a computer's help in improving driver safety and performance, but it's in line with decades of development."