Ford shows off its new autonomous driving research vehicle – it’s got lasers

Ford Fusion research vehicle

At a media event in Detroit, Ford Motor Company gave the automotive world a glimpse of its newest research vehicle, a tricked out Fusion Hybrid designed to test out new autonomous driving technologies. The car looks like your typical 2014 Fusion until you glance at the roof. It’s equipped with four whirling cylinders, emitting constant beams of imperceptible laser light in all directions.

The system is called Lidar (a portmanteau of “light” and “radar”) and we’ve become accustomed to seeing much larger versions of these rigs on Google mapping vehicles tooling around our cities. Ford is using the Lidar system in combination with 360-degree cameras to help its Fusion “see,” creating a visual and topographical representation of the world around it.

Ford Fusion research vehicle Lidar

That real-time construct is then compared against detailed virtual 3D maps, allowing the car to distinguish the permanent (lane dividers, exit ramps, park benches) from the temporal (frightened deer, pedestrians, oncoming traffic). The car then mashes all of that data together, and algorithms developed by the University of Michigan determine how the car reacts to its perceived surroundings.

The technology is very similar to what Google uses in it driverless car project, and Google is arguable much further ahead and unquestionably much more aggressive in developing autonomous car technologies. Ford maintains truly autonomous cars could be built today, but the public mindset simple isn’t ready for them. Google X’s engineers are already being chauffeured in self-driving cars to and from work.

The research vehicle from Lidar's point of view

The research vehicle from Lidar’s point of view

At the media event, Ford group VP of product development Raj Nair stressed the research vehicle is not a driverless car. Instead, it will be used to test out new “advanced driver assistance systems” Ford is testing, such as its automated self-parking and obstacle avoidance technologies.

That might not seem that ambitious given Google is supposedly investigating the idea of robo-taxis, but Ford by its nature isn’t going to be as aggressive as Google. In my recent interview with Bill Ford, the company’s executive chairman, we talked about the different approaches Silicon Valley and Motor City are taking to connected car innovation. Henry Ford’s great-grandson acknowledged the company is caught between poles: its desire to innovate at the speed of a tech company and the Detroit auto industry’s natural conservatism.

Ford Fusion Hybrid research vehicle interiorTo give Ford credit, though, it does see the bigger picture when it comes to autonomous driving, and it has more up its sleeve than a few sensor-driven research vehicles. It’s working with other automakers and the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration on the concept on inter-networked cars.

The idea is that cars shouldn’t just react to what they perceive, but communicate with one another in order to coordinate their driving. Instead of using Lidar to detect a car slamming on the brakes ahead of you, interconnected cars in a moving mesh network would tell each exactly when they’re braking. These kinds of vehicles won’t just be able to navigate themselves and avoid potential accidents. They’ll help solve problems of global gridlock and conserve resources by routing vehicles to their destinations in the most efficient way possible.

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