BlueCruise: Ford Is Taking A Big (But Careful) Step Toward Autonomous Vehicles

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Ford recently announced an upgrade to its Co-Pilot360 software. Called BlueCruise, the system will allow for hands-free driving on most interstate highways. While Ford doesn’t make the kind of bold promises that Tesla does, it does show that Ford is taking the same careful and slow approach that other industry players are taking.

What Will BlueCruise Do?

BlueCruise is basically a more advanced version of Ford’s Co-Pilot360 software and hardware package. Current owners of Co-Pilot360 vehicles can use features like intelligent adaptive cruise control (with stop-and-go), lane centering, and speed sign recognition. This doesn’t give an autonomous experience, but it’s similar to Tesla’s basic Autopilot system in most respects. What BlueCruise adds is hands-free driving on stretches of road that Ford’s teams have mapped and tested the system on.

While the system is hands-free, it’s not meant to allow operation with an inattentive or otherwise unprepared driver. There is a driver monitoring camera that watches for direction of gaze and head position to make sure the driver is looking at the road in case they need to take over. When used on a route that Ford hasn’t mapped out and tested yet, drivers will still be able to use lane centering and ACC, but will need to keep their hands on the wheel.

“Currently, more than 100,000 miles of highways across North America are dedicated Hands-Free Blue Zones in the Ford GPS mapping system. BlueCruise uses blue lighting on the digital instrument cluster to indicate when the vehicle is in a hands-free zone.” Ford said in their press release.

Ford’s “Mother of All Road Trips”

To prepare and test the system for drivers, Ford took a small fleet of equipped F-150 and Mach-E vehicles on 110,000 miles of road trips. Test drivers who were tasked with taking on 37 American states and 5 Canadian provinces started calling it “the mother of all road trips.”

These trips capped off a much longer development effort that totaled over 500,000 miles, most of which were short trips. On these final longer trips, test drivers spent much of last November and December winding their way across the United States and Canada. They searched for every conceivable road condition and highway driving scenario, monitoring the system’s performance, collecting data and highlighting areas where improvements could be made.

“I drive long-distance quite often, whether out to Boston or down to Florida to visit family or friends, and usually I mentally tire out on drives that far,” said Alexandra Taylor, BlueCruise feature development engineer, who logged more than 3,000 miles in an F-150 on the trek. “The one thing that became clear is that, when using BlueCruise, long drives aren’t nearly as mentally taxing to me.”

Test drivers were directed by a “mission control” that monitored incoming data and directed drivers to go to trouble spots that needed more data collection. “We really wanted to push BlueCruise to its limits. Every state builds roads a little differently,” said supervisor Justin Teems. “When you include factors like lane line degradation, weather and construction, building a hands-free driving system becomes extremely complex. Those complexities are why Ford has the best team of engineers in the world working on it.”

Ford Taking A Slow & Cautious Approach Like Most Automakers

Whether you’re a big fan of Elon Musk or someone who thinks he’s defrauding people, we can all agree that Tesla has made some very bold promises about Full Self Driving. Tesla promises that vehicles equipped with their system will be able to drive any road at almost any time, and current systems like Enhanced Autopilot aren’t locked down to only certain roadways, nor do they monitor drivers the way other systems do.

GM’s Super Cruise and Ford’s upcoming BlueCruise are taking a very different approach, for better or worse. Instead of operating on any road, they’ll only operate hands free on certain roads, and will require hands-on-wheel plus an attentive driver in all other places.

They’re also taking a very different marketing approach. Instead of making big promises, even Ford’s press release is very clear on the limitations of the system:

“BlueCruise is an SAE Level 2 driver-assist technology, similar to Tesla Autopilot but with the advantage of offering a true hands-free driving experience while in Hands-Free Mode that does not require a driver’s hands to stay in contact with the steering wheel, unless prompted by vehicle alerts.

“And unlike other approaches – such as GM’s Super Cruise, which uses red and green lighting, or Tesla’s Autopilot, which requires a driver keep their hands on the steering wheel – BlueCruise communicates with drivers in different ways. The instrument cluster transitions to communicate that the feature is in Hands-Free mode through text and blue lighting cues, effective even for those with color blindness.”

You’ll also notice that systems like BlueCruise and Super Cruise are even careful with their naming. Instead of calling themselves something like “Autopilot,” they seem to be aiming to look more like an advanced cruise control to drivers. Some researchers and industry groups call Tesla’s bold naming and promises “autonowashing,” because they feel it misleads drivers about how much supervision the system really requires. This seems to be something Ford, like most other automakers, is careful to avoid.

Different Strokes

Before any readers bite my head off in the comments, don’t assume that I am taking a side at any point in this article.

I just wanted to point out the different philosophical and operational approaches that players in the industry are taking. Tesla is taking the bold approach, while GM and Ford (among others) are being a lot more careful and slow as they get into autonomous vehicles. There are ups and downs to both approaches, and I’ve written a number of articles defending Tesla’s safety record despite the doomsday predictions others in the industry have made.

Personally, I think it’s good to see a diversity in approaches here. Like anything, the more different approaches that companies are taking, the higher likelihood there is that someone succeeds. Realistically, the different approaches will mean that some companies will succeed in one area, while others succeed in others. This will eventually result in everyone doing better.

The last thing we want is a monoculture, where everyone in the industry does the same thing as all others. When that happens, everyone gets held back.

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Jennifer Sensiba

Jennifer Sensiba is a long time efficient vehicle enthusiast, writer, and photographer. She grew up around a transmission shop, and has been experimenting with vehicle efficiency since she was 16 and drove a Pontiac Fiero. She likes to get off the beaten path in her "Bolt EAV" and any other EVs she can get behind the wheel or handlebars of with her wife and kids. You can find her on Twitter here, Facebook here, and YouTube here.

Jennifer Sensiba has 1984 posts and counting. See all posts by Jennifer Sensiba