Are we there yet? Is our autonomous car future already here? I went for a ride in the latest Ford Fusion autonomous research vehicle to find out. While other car companies, such as Mercedes-Benz, Tesla, and Volvo among others want us to drive or ride in self-driving cars right now, Ford is taking a more cautious approach. Following other cars in autonomous mode on the highway is one thing, but there is still no car for sale today that can claim full autonomy. Why? It turns out solving the self-driving car problem is more difficult than most of us can imagine.
Ford has already been working on this project for more than 10 years. In August, the company announced that it plans to have a commercially available level-4 (more on this later) autonomous car in 2021 for fleet use only. The company has not disclosed exactly what this vehicle would look like or whether it will be a sedan. However, Ford said that this vehicle or vehicles are targeted at ride sharing and package delivery services in urban environments. This 2021 vehicle will not have a steering wheel or brake/accelerator pedals. This will free up exterior and interior designers to think and design in new ways.
It will initially be available for fleet-only sale in order to counteract the high cost of such a vehicle. We are talking about four to five years in the future for a fleet vehicle. At this rate, you will not be able to have an autonomous Ford in your driveway until one or more years beyond 2021. We are not there yet, according to Ford.
Will you want to ride in an autonomous car? It’s difficult to judge this now, but there are many people who simply want to be transported from point A to point B safely and comfortably. The name of the game for Ford is about creating a method of transportation that increases convenience and decreases cost per mile. Ford says that Uber decreased the cost of transport to around $2.50 per mile, while increasing convenience. An autonomous car has an opportunity to decrease the cost much further. What does it mean for human labor and jobs? This is a much larger topic for another article.
I had an opportunity to go for a ride in the Ford Fusion autonomous research vehicle on a short route around Ford’s Dearborn campus, which are public roads where random things can happen. While the route was short, it was not an easy task. The car had to negotiate several pedestrian crossings with many people, four-way stop sign intersections, and a left turn at a traffic light. There was an unexpected event when a minivan pulled out of a parking space in front of the car. The Ford Fusion negotiated all this cautiously, within the bounds of the law, and without incident.
The car stayed on the side of caution while letting pedestrians cross, and other vehicles negotiate the stop sign intersections. I wanted to be a bad backseat driver. Literally. I was sitting in the back seat as two engineers from Ford were in the front two seats in the name of safety. The Ford engineer/driver could take over control of this research vehicle in case of an emergency.
I thought the car could have done the route a little faster. It did stop and pause for what seemed like an excessive time to decide which vehicle should go first at a stop sign intersection. However, it accelerated with authority when it deemed it safe.
Could this ride have been a little faster, shaving a minute or so from the trip? I am afraid this is not the point. The point was to transport me from point A to point B safely. The car accomplished the goal.
What is a level-4 autonomous car? This zero to five classification is defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE). Level-4 is an autonomous vehicle that is geo-fenced to a certain pre-mapped area. All of these Ford Fusions AVs have stored a detailed 3D map of the area the car is allowed to traverse. This may include streets, street signs, among other objects. The car then, in realtime, compares where it is to the stored map of the area. If it finds something new or unexpected, it will use more caution to negotiate that area.
Level-5 autonomous vehicle is one that can autonomously discover new roads and places. This problem is more complicated still. A geo-fenced autonomous vehicle would make a fine ride-sharing transport in a large city with a well-defined and pre-mapped streets, highways, and intersections.
Check out this video featuring the building blocks of Ford’s autonomous technologies.