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Ford Taps Top Brains For “Common Sense” Automated Driving

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Let’s say you’re out on your weekly grocery run when your car peers around a pile of rubble in the road, spots a crowd of zombies, and threads you into a quick u-turn without slamming into the cars coming up behind you. Yes, when the zombie apocalypse is finally upon us, automated driving could become quite handy, but Ford Motor Company sees plenty of urgency for a car that can mimic and even enhance human intuition right here and now.

If you want to put some numbers on that, just look at the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data for 2012.

Ford automated driving with LiDAR assist

Ford Fusion Hybrid research car with LiDAR courtesy of Ford Motor Company.

A Real Need For Automated Driving

In 2012, 33,561 people in the US died in motor vehicle accidents and an estimated 2.36 million people were injured. Now add in unreported minor accidents and you’ve got a huge, ongoing public health and property damage crisis on your hands.

NHTSA also noted a disturbing trend in year-to-year figures from 2011 to 2012, one that dovetails with warming weather, the growth of cities and walkable/bikeable neighborhoods, and the absence of young buyers in the new car market. That was a 3.3 percent increase in non-occupant traffic deaths, a group that includes pedestrians, motorcycles, and cyclists.

As more people get out of their cars and take to walking, cycling, scootering, and other low-key forms of personal mobility, share-the-road is going to emerge as an even more important safety issue, and that’s where automated driving could make a big difference.

LiDAR Assisted Automated Driving From Ford

Ford Motor Company has a whole research project dedicated to trendspotting, so it’s no surprise that the company is right on top of automated driving as part of its Blueprint for Mobility vision (for more on the mobility-connectivity angle, check out what Ford is doing with its MyEnergi Lifestyle package).

Just last month, Ford officially introduced its new automated driving research car, a Ford Fusion Hybrid equipped with rooftop LiDAR. The system is like radar for bats. It uses laser instead of sound to produce 3-D images in real time, so it can track moving objects as well as stationary ones.

We had a chance to check out the research car up close at the rollout, where Ford presenters emphasized the use of automated driving to help avoid traffic congestion as well as avoiding accidents, helping to minimize urban carbon emissions by streamlining traffic flow.

As for that top brain power, Ford already has a partnership with the University of Michigan for its automated driving project, focusing on robotics and automation. Now Ford has just tapped MIT and Stamford to bump it up to another level.

The new partnerships will leverage MIT for scenario planning, to fine tune the car’s ability to predict other vehicles and pedestrians.

The Stanford partnership will focus on getting the car to maneuver within a lane in order to see beyond a vehicle ahead.

Here’s how Ford global manager for driver assistance Greg Stevens describes it:

Our goal is to provide the vehicle with common sense. Drivers are good at using the cues around them to predict what will happen next, and they know that what you can’t see is often as important as what you can see. Our goal in working with MIT and Stanford is to bring a similar type of intuition to the vehicle.

Let’s note for the record that this underscores something that Ford has previously emphasized, which is that automated driving is not a replacement for driver engagement, it’s going to become a necessary part of the safe driving toolkit in an increasingly crowded environment.

So yeah, when LiDAR becomes standard, you still have to take mass transit if you want to read On the Road on the road.

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Tina specializes in military and corporate sustainability, advanced technology, emerging materials, biofuels, and water and wastewater issues. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter @TinaMCasey and Spoutible.


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