Ford Motor Company has developed two new test cars that offer a glimpse of the driverless car of the future. The first vehicle, a tricked out Ford Focus, uses sensors to detect obstacles in its path and will automatically brake or steer around them if the driver fails to react in time. The second is a prototype of a vehicle with self-parking technology, which works whether or not you’re actually in the driver’s seat.
The autonomous parking technology is particularly interesting because it shows that a vehicle is capable of driving itself without the intervention of the driver – even if it’s only within the confines of a parking lot. The driver can step out of the vehicle and activate a button on a keychain, and the car’s sensors, transmission and engine do the rest. Ford produced a video that shows how it works:
While there are plenty of assisted parking systems in vehicles today, they’re all still driver guided – the car does the steering, but the driver mans the brake and the gear shift. Ford’s prototype is not only smart enough to act autonomously, it’s capable of finding the optimal parking space in a lot and picking the trajectory at which it enters that space. Ford is still putting safeguards in place. If a driver takes his finger off the keychain button, the car stops in its tracks.
Ford’s obstacle avoidance technology is an extension of the automated driver assistance systems (ADAS) already appearing in many vehicles, but it takes the technology to a further extreme, taking over steering and brakes even when the car is moving at full speed. It may seem like a subtle distinction but it’s a meaningful one.
Today’s ADAS systems can hit the brakes while you’re reversing if a pedestrian suddenly crosses your path, they can adjust your cruise control if you encounter traffic, and they can even give you a little nudge back into your lane if you find yourself drifting. But Ford new obstacle avoidance tech takes complete control of the vehicle at highway speeds – even if it’s only for the split second – in order to avoid potentially fatal accidents.
Ultimately that’s going to the distinction between the autonomous car and today’s driver-assistance technologies: Instead of us relying on our smart vehicles to inform and guide our driving, we’ll have to trust they can make better driving decisions than we can.