Not fast or furious: Riding in Ford’s self-driving car

It reminded me a little of my first successful driver’s test at age 16. Stop a little longer. Wait until the pedestrian completely crosses the intersection. Remember, the instructor could take something valuable away.
This was the opposite of my ride with NASCAR legend Bill Elliott at Road Atlanta back in the 1990’s.

“We follow the speed limit (in this case 25 miles per hour). We drive by the letter of the law,” said Schuyler Cohn, one of two Ford autonomous vehicle engineers who served as my fellow passengers. “We’re going to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, maybe a little longer than most people would.”

Today, Ford has 10 of these vehicles and 20 more are in production, said Randy Visintainer, Ford director of autonomous vehicles. By 2018 Ford employees will be able to use them to get Ford’s sprawling campus.

But Ford has sufficiently refined its small fleet of self-driving Fusion hybrids to allow an international media group to test it on a specific route. The automaker has pledged to deliver a fully autonomous vehicle — no steering wheel, gas or brake pedal — to a ride-sharing service by 2021.

As Ford and other automakers admit, this technology is aimed at a very different pool of customers than those who have bought five generations of Mustangs or placed the earliest order for the GT ultra sportscar.

“Why are we doing this? Consumer attitudes and their priorities regarding vehicles and transportation are changing, ” said Ford CEO Mark Fields. “The world has moved from owning vehicles to owning and sharing them. This is driving us to reconsider our entire business model.”

The self-driving Fusions still have steering wheels, gas and brake pedals. Ford engineer Jakob Hoellerbauer sat behind the wheel and could have taken control if needed.

Still it’s easy to spot them from the outside. They all carry a contraption that looks a little like a bike carrier on the roof. Within that device are mounted four rapidly rotating cylinders about the size of a 20-ounce aluminum soft drink can. Those are the Lidar modules that emit light beams at a staggering speed to capture every detail of the environment within about 100 meters of the vehicle.

That landscape has already been mapped in three dimensions down to a one-centimeter definition of each stop sign, parked car or curb.

Velodyne, the Lidar supplier in which Ford has invested $150 million, is close to releasing the next generation which will make those rotating cylinders smaller and easier to package.

Complementing those spinning cylinders are tiny cameras mounted on bumpers and side mirrors as well as short and long-range radar.

While the technology can “teach” the vehicle to stay within lane lines, stop at traffic lights and stop lights, and detect pedestrians, bicycles and even pets or other animals, it can’t yet recognize the hand waves, head nods and other interpersonal non-verbal communication that drivers use to avoid fender benders at intersections. At least not yet.

Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles, said his team also has mapped routes from Ford World Headquarters along I-94 to Metro Airport. That requires programming the vehicle differently.

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