Ford has announced it is joining a growing list of automakers who are taking a serious look at the future of self-driving cars.
The automaker has teamed up with the University of Michigan and State Farm Insurance to develop an autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid test car. The collaboration will use the car to develop technologies that Ford and its suppliers can use on a future generation of vehicles.
“The Ford Fusion Hybrid automated vehicle represents a vital step toward our vision for the future of mobility,” Bill Ford, Ford’s executive chairman, said in a statement. “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.”
The Fusion test vehicle starts with features you can buy in a Ford today, including adaptive cruise control, collision warning and brake assist, self-parking and blind-spot monitoring. It then adds to the car four LiDAR infrared sensors that scan the road 2.5 million times a second, Ford said.
Similar to the way a bat or dolphin uses sound waves, LiDAR bounces infrared light off of objects up to 200 feet away and then uses the data to create a real-time 3-D map of the vicinity. The sensors are powerful enough to tell the difference between a paper bag and a small animal almost a football field away, Ford said.
This setup echoes what Bill Ford said at the annual Milken Global Conference in Los Angeles in April. “Here we stand on the cusp of a series of revolutions,” he said. “The car is really becoming a rolling group of sensors.”
With almost 34,000 traffic deaths in the U.S. in 2012, Ford joins brands including General Motors, Toyota, Audi, Volvo, Nissan and Mercedes-Benz in the quest to use advanced technologies to make vehicles safer. The integration of these features could come quicker than many people realize.
“The car as we know it, and how it’s used in people’s lives, is going to change really dramatically and it’s going to change fast,” Bill Ford said in April.
In September, Mercedes announced a slightly modified version of its new S-Class full-size sedan had successfully driven 62 miles on German public roads autonomously. Many automakers expect to bring self-driving technology to the road by 2020.
Though rapid, the evolution will move in stages, Ford said. Its current vehicles can self-park, self-drive in slow-moving traffic and redirect drivers around heavy traffic. The second step will see vehicles communicate with one another, allowing them to wirelessly link up and travel together to ease congestion.
The third and final step, according to Ford, will be fully autonomous vehicles.
In the meantime, state and federal legislation will need to catch up. Currently, only California, Nevada and Florida allow the testing of self-driving cars.
Ford’s home state of Michigan is poised to become the fourth. The state’s legislature passed a pair of bills Thursday clearing the way for these vehicles, and the bills now await Gov. Rick Snyder’s signature.
Snyder has long been in favor of allowing automakers to test autonomous cars on Michigan’s streets, which isn’t surprising given Michigan’s long-standing relationship with U.S. automakers. Like the existing laws in the other three states, Michigan’s would require a licensed driver to be ready and prepared to take control of the vehicle in case of emergency.
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