Ford Enlists Top Colleges to Help Reach Autonomous Car Goals

Autonomous Ford Fusion

Back in December, Ford unveiled its latest autonomous creation, a modified Fusion sedan that was equipped with LiDAR — like Sonar, but with infrared light — that was largely able to drive itself. The project, which has been ongoing for the better part of a decade, is being carried out in cooperation with the University of Michigan and State Farm Insurance. However, Ford is reaching out to some engineering heavy hitters to expand its autonomous vehicle program.

Ford will be enlisting the help of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Stanford University to expand its research of driverless vehicles, the company said on Wednesday. The research will be split between the two schools; MIT will be paying particular attention on instances when certain obstacles — pedestrians, other cars — cross in front of the vehicle (essentially, the functions currently left to the human in the driver’s seat). Stanford, meanwhile, will be focusing more on how the vehicle will be able to use sensors to be more aware of its surroundings.

“Our goal is to provide the vehicle with common sense,” said Greg Stevens, who is Ford’s global manager for driver assistance and active safety, in Ford’s statement. “Drivers are good at using the cues around them to predict what will happen next, and they know that what you can’t see is often as important as what you can see.”

“Working with university partners like MIT and Stanford enables us to address some of the longer-term challenges surrounding automated driving while exploring more near-term solutions for delivering an even safer and more efficient driving experience,” said Paul Mascarenas, who is the chief technical officer and Vice President for Ford research and innovation.

The University of Michigan is still working on the sensors that can map out the buildings, structures, and roads around the vehicle, using the aforementioned light-based sensors. However, Stanford’s research will deal more with the everyday oddities that drivers encounter, such as what to do when a lane is closed off for construction, for instance. Detroit News suggests that Stanford’s work will effectively allow the vehicle to “see” around other vehicles and determine the correct lane to continue traveling.

Ford is far from the only automaker experimenting with driverless cars, and even non-car companies — like Google — are a powerful force behind the efforts to take the human aspect out of the car. Recently, at the CES trade show in Las Vegas, BMW showed off a tweaked version of its M235i that, in addition to navigating pylons and obstacles, could also drift its way around a track with zero input from the warm body in the driver’s seat. It can also activate the blinker, pass a vehicle, then slide back into the original lane all on its own.

Nissan is also working on an autonomous driving system as a modified Leaf electric car became Japan’s first driverless vehicle to complete a public road test. Nissan is hoping to sell a a vehicle with autonomous capabilities by 2020.

Ford’s altered Fusion uses many of the same systems that can be found on Ford vehicles in showrooms, such as parking assists and adaptive cruise control. It’s the LiDAR system and some fancy computer and software engineering that ties the whole thing together.