A Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle with night vision recently navigated its way through the Arizona desert to perform a task that would prove challenging for even a human driver.
Driving in pitch black at Ford Arizona Proving Ground, the fully autonomous vehicle is an important development for Ford, as they venture into fast-autonomous vehicle technology.
These developments are key elements of Ford Smart Mobility, the plan to take Ford to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience, and data and analytics.
The night-time desert test, shows that even without cameras, which rely on light, Ford’s LiDAR – working with the car’s virtual driver software – is robust enough to steer flawlessly around winding roads. While it’s ideal to have all three modes of sensors – radar, cameras and LiDAR – the latter can function independently on roads without stoplights.
The U.S National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data has found the passenger vehicle occupant fatality rate during dark hours to be about three times higher than the daytime rate.
“Thanks to LiDAR, the test cars aren’t reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt,” says Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “In fact, LiDAR allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day.”
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 doing its job in the form of a grid of infrared laser beams projected around the vehicle as it drove past. LiDAR sensors shoot out 2.8 million laser pulses a second to precisely scan the surrounding environment.
“Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness,” describes Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist and engineer. “As I rode in the back seat, I was following the car’s progression in real time using computer monitoring. Sure enough, it stayed precisely on track along those winding roads.”