Fasten your seat belts because yesterday Ford Motor Company officially rolled out its Fusion hybrid automated research vehicle featuring a rooftop LiDAR system that sees and maps the world in real time 3-D, including people and other bodies in motion.
Remember that cool scene in Predator when you finally got to see what the alien was seeing? Well, this is kind of like that, only for real. CleanTechnica was invited to the rollout and we can tell you that we wouldn’t mind taking this ride for a spin or two around the block, even with these funny little LiDAR things spinning around on top (or maybe because of them).
The Ford Fusion research vehicle’s LiDAR system (think radar for bats, but with lasers instead of sound) is the heart of what Ford sees as a transformational period in automotive technology. While here at CleanTechnica we’ve focused a lot of attention on two legs of the future mobility equation – electric vehicles and fuel efficiency – automated driving is going to be a necessary third leg as the automotive industry adapts to an increasingly crowded world.
Automated Vehicles: Not The Whole Solution, But Part Of It
To give you an idea just how crowded that world will be, at yesterday’s rollout Raj Nair, Ford’s group Vice President for global product development, introduced the research vehicle by reminding us that it took the global automotive industry more than 100 years to get 1 billion vehicles on the road. That figure is expected to double, and double again, by mid-century.
Electric vehicles and fuel efficiency improvements can offer significant offsets to the prospect of increased carbon emissions, but the full impact of those gains could easily be blunted by a massive increase in traffic congestion.
That’s where automated vehicles come in. Ford does not equate automated with driverless, at least not in the foreseeable future. The idea is that with Internet connectivity and the LiDAR system providing a real time view of the world in motion beyond the driver’s immediate line of sight, cars will be able to navigate through congested urban traffic with a minimum of wasted fuel and time.
In the far future, Ford is also looking at platooning and other connectivity-based means of streamlining traffic flow.
Let’s note for the record that automated driving is also the subject of extensive federal research and national partnerships, spearheaded by the Defense Department’s Advanced Projects Research Agency (DARPA), and Ford was a major participant in three DARPA-sponsored “Grand Challenge” events in 2004, 2005, and 2007.
In 2007 Ford also partnered with the University of Michigan on the project, leveraging its long history with the university into the spheres of robotics and automation, and recently brought State Farm into the fold to focus on safety-related issues.
More Fuel Savings Ahead For Ford
The system could also dovetail with next-generation cruise control, which Ford let us experience in a drive around the local area freeways in another research vehicle.
The new cruise control system is in its early research stage, using exiting hardware with no Internet connectivity. The idea is to use the car’s existing sensors to gather information about road conditions, primarily the topography (at least for now), so that the cruise control can be continuously tweaked to yield fuel savings. When you’re in the car, you can feel the speed change slightly to accommodate the grade. Right now the test car is getting about five percent savings, and it’s possible that additional fine-tuning through online connectivity could improve on that.
We also got an up close look at Ford’s new compact, lightweight, fuel efficient EcoBoost engine, which it will offer on more models this year, and an optional auto start-stop system that is also being offered on additional models this year.
We’re going to go out on a limb and call the start-stop system a no-brainer of an option for many drivers. Ford puts the cost at $295 and cites about $1,000 saved per year given today’s gasoline prices and a 15,000 mile-per-year drive, which is a tidy little payback period.
As for the start-stop feel, we were promised a seamless ride and that’s pretty much what we got in an extended jaunt around a nearby parking area. Information about the engine status is displayed on the dash and other than that, you wouldn’t have a clue that it’s shutting off and on: no noise, no vibrations, no hiccups, no nothing.
Ford And Electric Vehicles
Add in Ford’s work on lightweight and renewable/recyclable materials (dandelion rubber and recycled denim, for example) and what you get is a commitment to reducing the carbon footprint of gasoline vehicles, which is a pretty realistic move given that the transition to electricity (including fuel cells) is going to take many years, during which time millions of new car buyers will choose to stick with petroleum fuels.
Meanwhile, Ford’s ventures into electric vehicles are already showing signs of future connectivity with LiDAR technology, given the company’s emphasis on vehicle-to-home communication in its MyEnergi Lifestyle package.
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