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Ford Establishes New Division For AI & Autonomy

In this article, I want to share some news from Ford about its new AI and autonomous vehicle division, named Latitude AI. But, to really understand why this is an important move, we need to first look at the history of autonomous vehicles.

Some Background

It seems like not too long ago that the idea of a car that drives itself at all was confined to science fiction, with one of the more popular examples being KITT from Knight Rider. But, behind the scenes, work on autonomous vehicles had already been going on since 1939, and arguably before.

Prior to 1939, the only cars that had hit the road without drivers started with remote controlled vehicles, some with a car following behind the radio-controlled one to make sure it got a good signal. A car without anybody controlling it first appeared at the World’s Fair in 1939, with a GM-sponsored Futurama exhibit showing off cars controlled by transmitters placed in roadways.

Norman Bel Geddes, the exhibitor, was an American designer and futurist who outlined his vision for the future of transportation in his 1940 book Magic Motorways. He argued that the roads of the future should be designed in such a way that they would enable vehicles to drive themselves through a system of sensors, radar, cameras, and computers. Bel Geddes’ vision included automatic guidance and control systems on highways that would result in improved safety, comfort, and convenience for drivers, as well as greater efficiency in travel times. In addition, he predicted this system of autonomous driving to be a reality by 1960. Bel Geddes’ ideas were obviously pretty far ahead of their time.

In 1953, RCA Labs successfully created a system with a miniature car guided and controlled by wires laid in a pattern on a laboratory floor. The system inspired Leland M. Hancock, traffic engineer in the Nebraska Department of Roads, and his director, L. N. Ress, state engineer, to experiment with the system in highway installations. Their experiments involved using either metal skids or wires embedded in the pavement that would act as markers for vehicles to follow autonomously, and the experiments were successful.

During the 1950s and 1960s, General Motors showcased its Firebirds, a series of experimental cars that featured an “electronic guide system” that could autonomously control the car while the driver relaxed. In addition, Radar Assistance Systems with emergency braking functionality were introduced in concept cars by major companies during this period. Ford’s FX Atomos concept car had a radar-enabled “Roadarscope”, which provided visualized information to drivers. GM also demonstrated an emergency brake assist feature on its Cadillac Cyclone in 1959, furthering the development of autonomous technologies.

It took until the 1980s for experimenters to move away from special roads and embedded wires or transmitters.

In 1987, Ernst Dickmanns and his team at the Bundeswehr University Munich in Munich, Germany, achieved a milestone by designing a vision-guided Mercedes-Benz robotic van that could reach speeds of 59.6 miles per hour (95.9 km/h) on streets without traffic. The success of this project sparked the €749,000,000 EUREKA Prometheus Project, which ran from 1987 to 1995 and focused on researching autonomous vehicles. During this time, DARPA funded the Autonomous Land driven Vehicle (ALV) project in the United States, which worked with various universities and research firms to develop new technologies for autonomous vehicles. This included the development of lidar, computer vision, and autonomous robotic control, which allowed the ALV to drive at speeds of up to 19 miles per hour (31 km/h). HRL Laboratories (formerly Hughes Research Labs) also demonstrated off-road map and sensor-based autonomous navigation using the ALV in 1987. This was a major achievement, as it enabled robotics vehicles to stubborn complex terrain including steep slopes, ravines, large rocks, and vegetation with a top speed of 1.9 miles per hour (3.1 km/h).

Progress on this continued in the 1990s, but nothing was commercially available from any of those experiments, either.

One big catalyst for today’s AV scene came from DARPA. The DARPA Grand Challenge was an event hosted by the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA) in 2004 and 2005 to promote the development of autonomous vehicles. It was an open challenge intended to spur the development of driverless car technology and jump start research into this area. The event consisted of a series of races for both ground and aerial unmanned vehicles over different terrains and routes, with teams competing for monetary prizes. These races put public pressure on automobile manufacturers and tech companies to invest in the development of autonomous vehicle technologies, which led to rapid advancements in the field over the years.

The success of these events eventually led to autonomous vehicle technology appearing in everyday life, such as self-driving cars, buses, delivery drones, and more. Many of the top researchers in the field either participated in the event themselves or learned from those who did.

What All This Has In Common

The big common takeaway from all this is that something as complex as a self-driving car doesn’t seem to happen through the traditional development practices of automakers. For over 100 years, improvements to cars came one mechanical invention at a time, with basic software for things like engine controls emerging on the scene bit by bit since the 1970s. Small incremental improvement is easy to finance and manage, but something as fundamentally different as autonomy requires a dedicated approach that doesn’t turn a profit for the next quarter, or even the next year.

How Ford Decided To Tackle This

To put in the dedicated longer-term effort needed to get robots on the road, Ford formed Latitude, a leading team of machine learning, robotics, software, sensor, systems engineering, and operations professionals. This recruitment is aimed at expanding Ford’s development efforts in automated driving technology. Already, the company has made significant progress with its BlueCruise system, which has accumulated over 50 million miles of hands-free driving.

“We see automated driving technology as an opportunity to redefine the relationship between people and their vehicles,” said Doug Field, chief advanced product development and technology officer at Ford Motor Company. “Customers using BlueCruise are already experiencing the benefits of hands-off driving. The deep experience and talent in our Latitude team will help us accelerate the development of all-new automated driving technology — with the goal of not only making travel safer, less stressful and more enjoyable, but ultimately over time giving our customers some of their day back.”

One thing that gave them a running start was their prior investment in Argo AI. Ford has hired more than 550 employees from Argo AI to join the Latitude team, bringing with them their experience in automated driving. This includes expertise in areas such as machine learning, robotics, cloud platforms, mapping, sensors and compute systems, test operations, systems engineering, and safety engineering. The team has utilized these skills to focus on developing advanced driver-assist systems (ADAS).

Sammy Omari, executive director of ADAS Technologies at Ford, serves as the CEO of Latitude. Peter Carr is appointed as the chief technology officer to oversee product and technical development, while David Gollob takes on the role of president with responsibility for business operations.

Latitude AI’s leader, Sammy Omari. Image provided by Ford.

“We believe automated driving technology will help improve safety while unlocking all-new customer experiences that reduce stress and in the future will help free up a driver’s time to focus on what they choose,” said Omari. “The expertise of the Latitude team will further complement and enhance Ford’s in-house global ADAS team in developing future driver assist technologies, ultimately delivering on the many benefits of automation.”

Latitude is headquartered in Pittsburgh, with engineering hubs located in Dearborn, Michigan; and Palo Alto, California. The company also operates a state-of-the-art highway-speed test track facility in Greenville, South Carolina.

Featured image provided by Ford.

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Written By

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.


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