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Ford Is Ready for the Autonomous Car. Are Drivers?


An SUV with cameras and sensors sits as Princeton University students with PAVE (Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering) prepare it to operate driverless.

Photograph by Mel Evans/AP Photo

An SUV with cameras and sensors sits as Princeton University students with PAVE (Princeton Autonomous Vehicle Engineering) prepare it to operate driverless.

The auto industry has already developed all the technology necessary to create truly autonomous vehicles, Ford (F) engineers claim. The reasons there aren’t driverless cars all over the road today is in part a cost issue—the sensors and automated intelligence required aren’t cheap—but mainly one of driver mindset. Your typical commuter isn’t quite ready to take the sizable leap from cruise control to completely automated driving.

“There is no technology barrier from going where we are now to the autonomous car,” said Jim McBride, a Ford Research and Innovation technical expert who specializes in autonomous vehicle technologies. “There are affordability issues, but the big barrier to overcome is customer acceptance.”

McBride said Ford has already built research vehicles with high-resolution omnidirectional cameras that can see the road and the car’s surroundings far better than any driver with a few mirrors. Those vehicles also have scanning lasers that can model the world around it in 3-D. Vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) communication standards have been finalized that would allow cars not only to broadcast their location and speed to one another but also create ad hoc vehicular networks—hive minds that could coordinate the actions of thousands of automobiles on the roadway.

Those assets combined with location-based technologies and growing street-view-image databases from companies like Google (GOOG) can give a car a greater awareness of its surroundings than any driver alone could achieve, McBride said. And while laser arrays and omnidirectional cameras may be price-prohibitive, there are plenty of features already in vehicles today, such as front- and rear-facing cameras and ultrasonic sensors, that could perform many of those advanced technologies’ basic functions, he added.

But while Ford may be ready to take that technological jump, drivers aren’t quite prepared to take the leap of faith necessary to forfeit complete control of their vehicles to an onboard computer or larger network intelligence, said Mike Kane, the Ford vehicle engineering supervisor for driver assistance technologies. It’s not that drivers are adamantly opposed to the concept of a driverless car, Kane said; they just need to be introduced to that concept gradually.

Baby steps

Kane said Ford has hosted clinics and done polling on how consumers feel about autonomous and semiautonomous vehicles. It found that while people are still uncomfortable with the idea of ceding the driver’s seat to a computer, they are very open to the idea of their cars becoming more intelligent and aware. New capabilities like collision warning for safety, automatic parallel parking, and Ford’s Sync voice-control technology have been well-received. Ford believes that through the gradual introduction of more automation, drivers will come around to the idea of a car that drives itself.

“People are more accepting of the idea,” Kane said. “They always want their cars to do more. … It’s going to take a decade before the masses fully accept the autonomous car, but they’ll get there.”

To help them along, Ford is starting to move automation features that were previously only available in high-end luxury cars down to mass-market vehicles. The new Ford Fusion is the first affordable sedan to contain the automaker’s Lane Keeping System, which uses the car’s forward camera to detect when a car is drifting outside the lines. The system alerts the driver through vibrations in the steering wheel and audio warnings, but if the driver doesn’t respond, the car will automatically correct, nudging the vehicle back into its lane.

That is an example of automation on the small scale, Kane said. The car isn’t taking over. It’s just giving the driver prompts, along with a slight little push in the right direction. Other technologies like pull-drift compensation, which automatically adjusts steering for crosswinds or uneven roads, automated parallel parking assistance, and adaptive cruise control are all examples of semiautonomous features that are making it into mass-market cars like the Fusion. Ultimately, making those features standard in all vehicle models will begin to alter the average consumer’s perception of automated driving, Kane said.

And what about the thrill of driving?

You’d think in a country as car-obsessed as the U.S., allowing your car to do the driving for you would be anathema to many drivers, especially the ones who invest in high-performance vehicles. But McBride said the opposite is true: It’s in sports car and luxury car lines that automation is in highest demand.

That’s explained, McBride said, by how the average U.S. driver actually spends time on the road: commuting from home to work and back, often in bumper-to-bumper traffic. There’s nothing thrilling about a road bogged down by congestion, and it’s in traffic that these automation services are most useful, McBride said. He also noted that customers can elect to turn off those automation features whenever they choose. When on an empty rural highway with the top down, a driver doesn’t necessarily want his car constantly correcting his lane position.

“You still have that freedom whenever you want it,” McBride said. “But if drivers spend 53 minutes of their day in traffic, they get tired.”

There may, however, come a time when that freedom isn’t an option. At the Mobile World Congress earlier this year, Ford’s namesake Executive Chairman Bill Ford laid out a “Blueprint for Mobility,” which envisions a world of 4 billion vehicles. All of those cars simply won’t have room to move if all of their drivers are acting independently, Ford predicted. Only through inter-networking vehicles with one another and other transportation networks will we be able to ensure all of those drivers get from point A to point B.

Ford’s notion is interesting, because in that world the driverless vehicle remains automatic but is no longer autonomous. Instead, it is working with all the other vehicles on the road to create the optimal traffic patterns for the whole, while ignoring individual drivers’ own inclinations to, say, weave through lanes or tailgate. It’s a sort of enforced social contract on the highway, and, according to McBride, eventually we may not have a choice but to enter into such contracts.

There are already cities like London that place conditions on drivers entering their confines—rush-hour congestion taxes or prohibitions against energy-inefficient vehicles, McBride said. It’s not that far of a stretch to imagine that cities with the worst congestion would require future drivers to hand over the steering wheel as a condition for driving on their streets.

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Fitchard is a writer for the GigaOM Network.

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