Is this Ford self-driving car the shape of things to come?

Ford believes that human drivers could be taken out of cars within five years. It’s a big ask. Many other car manufacturers are focusing their efforts on halfway house solutions like intelligent cruise control for motorways.

Ford is also developing these products but believes that when it comes to self-driving cars, it’s all or nothing. I agree — human drivers cannot realistically be expected to take back safe control without warning at a moment’s notice.

To give you a taste of what may soon be possible, Ford recently carried out a night-time test of a self-driving Ford Fusion (like a Mondeo). The test took place at Ford’s proving ground in Arizona and was distinctive because the the car was operated without headlights.

Ford self-driving car
Ford Nightonomy self-driving car being trialled in the Arizona desert at night and without lights.

The aim of the test was to demonstrate that Ford’s LiDAR infrared sensor technology is able to steer the car without assistance on winding roads. Current systems, such as the lane departure warning systems available on current cars to warn you if you drift towards the white line, rely on cameras which in turn need light. LiDAR is far more sophisticated.

LiDAR sensors shoot out 2.8 million laser pulses a second to precisely scan the surrounding environment. Ford intends to use this system alongside radar and cameras to enable cars to drive without human involvement in any real-world situation.

Ford LiDAR sensors
Some of the sensors whih form part of the Ford LiDAR self-driving system

To navigate in the dark, Ford self-driving cars use high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road, road markings, geography, topography and landmarks like signs, buildings and trees. The vehicle uses LiDAR pulses to pinpoint itself on the map in real time. Additional data from the radar system is combined with LiDAR to complete the full sensing capability of the autonomous vehicle.

For the desert test, Ford engineers, sporting night-vision goggles, monitored the Fusion from inside and outside the vehicle. Night vision allowed them to see the LiDAR functioning in the form of a grid of infrared laser beams projected around the vehicle as it drove past.

This year, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet – bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid four-door models for testing on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan, US. While critics in Europe will point out that our roads are generally much busier, narrower and have more junctions and tight corners, the direction of travel is clear: within my lifetime, I believe, human drivers will become largely redundant.

It’s an exciting thought, in my view. I believe self-driving cars have the potential to improve road safety considerably in the long term. After all, more than 90% of collisions are the result of human error. It would be good to cut this number.

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