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Ford driverless car to hit California roads

Ford driverless car to hit California roads
Ford will use a modified Fusion Hybrid to test emerging autonomous driving technologies on California roads starting in 2016. (Ford)

Add Ford to the growing list of car companies fielding autonomous vehicles on the West Coast.

The Detroit auto giant has received a permit to begin operating a driverless car on public streets as part of the the California Autonomous Vehicle Testing Program.

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Ford executives say a Ford Fusion hybrid is already being tested in a closed-course setting in the Palo Alto area. Now a small fleet of 2016 Fusions will come to California and begin driving around Silicon Valley and San Francisco streets.

The Fusion, when it hits the road, will be occupied by one operator, who will monitor the driving controls, and one systems expert, who will monitor the car's sensors, said James McBride, founder of Ford's autonomous vehicle program.

Ford hopes to eventually bring forth a "Level 4" autonomous car, McBride said -- one that relies on no driver input, even in emergencies.

"We've always taken the approach that we want the car to be able to handle any scenario a human would, and not suddenly throw the driving back into the lap of the driver" when the going gets rough, McBride said.

Before the driverless Fusions get rolling, McBride said, teams of engineers must first devise routes and create extremely detailed maps.  Fusions already tested in Michigan and Arizona have used 360-degree cameras and radar to "see" more of the road, more of the time, than any driver could.

Putting such a car onto a route already mapped in this manner would make it easier for the vehicle to know when some unwelcome event is taking place -- a box falling off the back of a truck, for example, or pieces of a blown tire lying in lanes.

Ford is not first to the driverless game. Car companies that have already received California permits include Volkswagen, Mercedes-Benz, Tesla Motors, Nissan and Honda. The tech giant Google has used its permit to operate a bubble-shaped autonomous car around the Bay Area.

And the Fusion isn't the first forward-looking Ford on the ground in Silicon Valley. The company now has more than 100 engineers, scientists and researchers working at its Research and Innovation Center in Palo Alto.

"They have to," said Gartner's vice president and automotive practice leader Thilo Koslowski. "They have to make sure their cars are relevant, going forward. The cars have to be safer, just like they have to be more fuel efficient. All the car companies are looking at the entire spectrum, including fully autonomous cars."

Ford said the new cars will be on Silicon Valley roads sometime early next year. Ford CEO Mark Fields has previously said the company's investment in the region is meant to attract top automotive technology talent.

McBride said Ford's interest in the region is also partly geographical.

"Michigan is relatively flat, but San Francisco is not," he said, speaking from Ford's offices in Dearborn. "Plus California has different rules. You have high-occupancy-vehicle lanes on the freeways, and the warm weather means you have tons of bicyclists and pedestrians on the streets, and you let motorcyclists split lanes. We expect to see more clutter on the roadway than we do here."

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Twitter: @misterfleming

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