The Ford Fusion Hybrid tripped around a closed circuit in the dark—with its headlights off. It could do so because of LiDAR technology—a series of sensors that make a 3D map of everything around but doesn’t rely on visible light.
Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles, says LiDAR “allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day.” The car drove at night through the Arizona desert without human interference and with its headlights switched off, to test the limits of its artificially intelligent navigation system. The new LiDAR system is made by Velodyne, a company that Ford has been closely working with for a decade. These sensors shoot 2.8 million laser pulses per second, to scan the surroundings precisely. The car uses high-resolution 3D maps in conjunction with the LiDAR sensors to pinpoint itself on the map, all in real time. In addition, the car also uses a conventional radar which gathers additional information and enhances the sensing capabilities of the vehicle.
Wayne Williams, research scientist and engineer at Ford said, ”Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness. 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.”
LiDAR addresses the need to recognise objects, road signs and signals, which is especially difficult in the night. Also, irregular signage standards and bad weather make it difficult for autonomous vehicles to perceive the road ahead. This LiDAR equipped Ford Fusion Hybrid can drive in practically any condition.The cost of these LiDAR systems are high at present, but Ford’s CEO, Mark Fields says the advancement in this technology and the downward trend of technology costs in general, will make it a viable option for full scale production cars in the future. For 2016, Ford plans to triple its autonomous car fleet, to 30 Ford Fusion Hybrids.