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Ford is ready for the autonomous car. Are drivers?

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The auto industry has already developed all the technology necessary to create truly autonomous vehicles, Ford (s f) engineers claim. The reasons there aren’t driverless cars all over the road today is in part a cost issue — the sensors and automated intelligence required aren’t cheap — but mainly one of driver mindset. Your typical commuter isn’t quite ready to take the sizable leap from cruise control to completely automated driving.

“There is no technology barrier from going where we are now to the autonomous car,” said Jim McBride, a Ford Research and Innovation technical expert who specializes in autonomous vehicle technologies. “There are affordability issues, but the big barrier to overcome is customer acceptance.”

McBride said Ford has already built research vehicles with high-resolution omnidirectional cameras that can see the road and the cars surroundings far better than any driver with a few mirrors. Those vehicles also have scanning lasers that can model the world around it in 3-D. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communications standards have been finalized that would allow cars not only to broadcast their location and speed to one another but also create ad hoc vehicular networks — hive minds that could coordinate the actions of thousands of automobiles on the roadway.

Those assets combined with location-based technologies and growing street-view-image databases from companies like Google (s goog) can give a car a greater awareness of its surroundings than any driver alone could achieve, McBride said. And while laser arrays and omnidirectional cameras may be price-prohibitive, there are plenty of features already in vehicles today, such as front-and rear-facing cameras and ultrasonic sensors, that could perform many of those advanced technologies’ basic functions, he added.

But while Ford may be ready to take that technological jump, drivers aren’t quite prepared to take the leap of faith necessary to forfeit complete control of their vehicles to an onboard computer or larger network intelligence, said Mike Kane, the Ford vehicle engineering supervisor for driver assistance technologies. It’s not that drivers are adamantly opposed to the concept of a driverless car, Kane said; they just need to be introduced to that concept gradually.

Baby steps

Kane said Ford has hosted clinics and done polling on how consumers feel about autonomous and semi-autonomous vehicles. It found that while people are still uncomfortable with the idea of ceding the driver’s seat to a computer, they are very open to the idea of their cars becoming more intelligent and aware. New capabilities like collision warning for safety, automatic parallel parking and Ford’s Sync voice-control technology have been well received. Ford believes that through the gradual introduction of more automation, drivers will come around to the idea of a car that drives itself.

“People are more accepting of the idea,” Kane said. “They always want their cars to do more. . . . It’s going to take a decade before the masses fully accept the autonomous car, but they’ll get there.”

To help them along Ford is starting to move automation features that were previously only available in high-end luxury cars down to mass-market vehicles. The new Ford Fusion is the first affordable sedan to contain the automaker’s Lane Keeping System, which uses the car’s forward camera to detect when a car is drifting outside the lines. The system alerts the driver through vibrations in the steering wheel and audio warnings, but if the driver doesn’t respond the car will automatically correct, nudging the vehicle back into its lane.

That is an example of automation on the small scale, Kane said. The car isn’t taking over. It’s just giving the driver prompts, along with a slight little push in the right direction. Other technologies like pull-drift compensation, which automatically adjusts steering for crosswinds or uneven roads, automated parallel parking assistance, and adaptive cruise control are all examples of semi-autonomous features that are making it into mass-market cars like the Fusion. Ultimately making those features standard in all vehicle models will begin to alter the average consumer’s perception of automated driving, Kane said.

And what about the thrill of driving?

You’d think in a country as car-obsessed as the U.S., allowing your car to do the driving for you would be anathema to many drivers, especially the ones who invest in high-performance vehicles. But McBride said the opposite true: It’s in sports car and luxury car lines that automation is in highest demand.

That’s explained, McBride said, by how the average U.S. driver actually spends time on the road: commuting from home to work and back, often in bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s nothing thrilling about a road bogged down by congestion, and it’s in traffic that these automation services are most useful, McBride said. He also noted that customers can elect to turn off those automation features whenever they choose. When on an empty rural highway with the top down, a driver doesn’t necessarily want his car constantly correcting his lane position.

“You still have that freedom whenever you want it,” McBride said. “But if drivers spend 53 minutes of their day in traffic, they get tired.”

Traffic JamThere may, however, come a time when that freedom isn’t an option. At Mobile World Congress earlier this year, Ford’s namesake Executive Chairman Bill Ford laid out a “Blueprint for Mobility,” which envisions a world of 4 billion vehicles. All of those cars simply won’t have room to move if all of their drivers are acting independently, Ford predicted. Only through inter-networking vehicles with one another and other transportation networks will we be able to ensure all of those drivers get from point A to point B.

Ford’s notion is interesting, because in that world the driverless vehicle remains automatic but is no longer autonomous. Instead it is working with all the other vehicles on the road to create the optimal traffic patterns for the whole, while ignoring individual drivers’ own inclinations to, say, weave through lanes or tailgate. It’s a sort of enforced social contract on the highway, and, according to McBride, eventually we may not have a choice but to enter into such contracts.

There are already cities like London that place conditions on drivers entering their confines — rush-hour congestion taxes or prohibitions against energy-inefficient vehicles, McBride said. It’s not that far of a stretch to imagine that cities with the worst congestion would require future drivers to hand over the steering wheel as a condition for driving on their streets.

Image courtesy of Flickr user

20 Responses to “Ford is ready for the autonomous car. Are drivers?”

  1. So what does the car do when a squirrel jumps in front of it? How ’bout a piece of a truck tire or a large leaf?
    Can it know it’s OK and safer for everyone to run over the leaf? Tough luck for the squirrel?

  2. Nathan Blacka

    I think this is a horrible idea. What happens when you hear the word “virus” or talk about your computer freezing? What if the huge network that is controlling the cars gets a virus or crashes? Automakers say the most unpredictable aspect in a car is the driver, but the driver is the one that saves the day. Can you really trust a computer when everyday people experience tech problems and frustrations? What about IRobot? That movie doesn’t really suggest that computers are the best thing for this world.

  3. Doug Alexander

    At least one consumer is ready. A woman crashed her brand-new RV motor home when, thinking that “cruise control” meant “auto-pilot” she engaged it and then got up and went back to the kitchenette to make herself a sandwich.

  4. cathy wu

    Very interesting point that “inter-networking vehicles with one another and other transportation networks” in a way nulls and void the autonomy of autonomous cars, and that they will merely be automatic.

    First, I’m not sure that we want full autonomy in our autonomus cars anyway. We simply want to get to where we want to go, and that is achieved through networked communication and intelligent path planning, not through autonomy.

    But even more interesting, it seems that it is the driver who is more autonomous in the autonomous car. We will be freed of the time we spend guiding the wheel and the gas pedal!

  5. Kevin, why isn’t the government investing more in this. The payoff seems huge from what I’ve read — reduction in crashes by 80%. And AAA says the US spends $300 billion on cashes each year. But I only see $22 million in President Obama’s budget for the safety pilot going on in Ann Arbor and other places. I wrote an editorial about it for our St. Louis newspaper at this link:

  6. Matthew Newton

    Great article.

    How bizarre is it for them to be using focus groups, which are going to be hopelessly ineffective when talking about pie in the sky hypotheticals!

    I watched a video two days ago of a woman using the self-parking Ford. She was worried and cynical. As she used the technology however, you could see the delight spread across her face as the car did everything perfectly. 1 minute was all that was needed to completely convert her and she was not even close to being the target market for this product.

    We’ll be blogging about this article shortly!

    Matthew Newton
    Driverless Car HQ

  7. Most driverless car articles and (as per this article) Ford miss the point that people would have no need to buy their own autonomous car. In 7 years, just call up a car with your phone and it will pick you up and drop you off. No need for 4 billion cars, we can all share.

    • Matthew Newton

      Exactly. Great point Scott. Nearly all driverless cars will be owned and operated by taxi-like companies today. The amount of cars on the road is more likely to decrease from today’s level, not increase.

      Matthew Newton
      Driverless Car HQ

    • samabuelsamid

      Actually Scott, I don’t think that Ford is missing the point about car sharing at all. Ford has been involved with ZipCar for some time

      The technology highlighted in this article is a stepping stone towards more fully autonomous vehicles that could be used by services like ZipCar in the coming years. Utilizing the technology in more limited ways today allows the engineers to proved the reliability, drive down the cost and take the time to develop robust control systems.

  8. I’m very ready to give up driving and let the AI take care of it! The issue for me will be price. My current car – and probably the only one I’ll ever buy new – is a 2005 Chevy Aveo LS, practically the cheapest new car you could buy in 2005!

  9. Mark Hachman

    I would disagree with that somewhat. I think that a small percentage of consumers (probably in commute-centric regions like California) would be more than willing to trust their lives to autonomous vehicles, especially if they’re in the driver’s seat. The problem is that, over time, familiarity will breed complacency, and “drivers” will tend to tweet, surf, call, and do everything else but keep their eyes on the road.

    In other words, the current legislation that calls for a present, engaged driver to take control in the event of an emergency is somewhat of a joke.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Isn’t every region of the country becoming commute centric though? Everyone seems to be living further away from where they work, whether its in LA or rural Texas. I don’t think anyone is really immune from the commute except for those few cities in the U.S. where going sans car is an option. Here in Chicago, I work at home and my wife takes the train, but we still spend a lot of time in grid lock when we go to the burbs to visit family.

      That said, I definitely agree with your wariness about complacency. It’s a scary thought to think about what happens when the system fails and all of sudden a bunch of sleeping drivers suddenly take over the helms of their vehicles.

    • Derek Kerton


      The existing experiments reveal that it is precisely “in the event of an emergency” that the human should be REMOVED from the equation. The speed, accuracy, and precision of electronics far exceeds what the average human can offer.

      It’s not hard to see that emergency handling and avoidance is the FIRST place that some automotive autonomy has emerged in production vehicles. ESC, Anti-lock braking, auto airbag deployment, blind-spot sensors, adaptive cruise, emergency braking, Super-handling All-wheel-drive. The machines are ALREADY taking over “in the event of an emergency”.

      Perhaps what you meant was the human would take control in case of a system failure? That makes more sense.

  10. Joshua Fryer

    Why is there not a single mention of Google’s work in this area? It’s nice to know that multiple companies are working to bring this to reality.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Joshua,

      It wasn’t me intention to slight Google. In fact, the first link in the post points to previous coverage of their driverless car initiatives. This story was specifically what Ford is trying to do change customer perceptions about autonomous cars. It wasn’t meant to be an overview of all of the efforts out there.

  11. This is totally cool. I’ve always thought while sitting in traffic, “We all want to go the same way! Why is this taking so long?!” The hive-mind aspect just sounds awesome.