We have seen a self-driving car make a 60-mile trip on autopilot, which was the perfect example of semi-autonomous (Level 3) technology on the road. In the latest round tests conducted in the Ford Arizona Proving Ground, Blue Oval engineers took the next step by abandoning headlights in an autonomous Fusion by the dark of night. By operating on Light Detection and Ranging (LiDAR) technology alone on a winding road, the tests show the promise of fully autonomous cars in action.
Ideally, self-driving vehicles operate on LiDAR, radar, and cameras to identify objects on the road, recognize center lines, and otherwise navigate without the need of a driver. Ford decided to increase the degree of difficulty by shutting down the lights in the pitch-black desert night and testing out the functionality of LiDAR alone. The results are convincing:
Ford says high-resolution 3D maps keep its autonomous cars navigating by night in a setting like this one. Buildings, trees, topography, road markings, and signs can all be detected and used by the vehicle to stay the proper course. In this case, the engineers wore infrared goggles to assure themselves the Fusion was on track. It was nearly impossible to see more than a few feet in front of the car.
“Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness,” said Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist and engineer aboard for the ride. “As I rode in the back seat, I was following the car’s progression in real time using computer monitoring. Sure enough, it stayed precisely on track along those winding roads.”
Ford’s emphasis on fully autonomous (Level 4) driving separates the automaker from other companies bringing the technology to market in current and upcoming vehicles. The semi-autonomous (Level 3) functions that require a driver to take over at various points will not appear in Blue Oval cars. At a recent appearance in New York, Ken Washington, Ford vice president of research and engineering, reiterated he sees fully autonomous functions entering the picture by 2020.
Tools that make nighttime driving safer cannot arrive soon enough. In the statement accompanying the Fusion night test video, Ford cited NHTSA data that shows passenger vehicle occupant fatality rates are three times higher at night than in the daytime. For senior drivers, one of the groups seen as a perfect match for autonomous vehicles, night driving is often a burden.
At CES 2016, Ford announced it was tripling its fleet of autonomous Fusions to 30 cars this year. In addition to the Arizona proving ground, the automaker has self-driving Fusion Hybrids testing on roads in California and Michigan. Whether the strategy of leaping beyond Level 3 autonomy works for Ford remains to be seen. The competition will have about four years to see if it can make its own case.
Connect with Eric on Twitter @EricSchaalNY