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Ford workers to get 1st crack at robot cars

Michael Martinez
The Detroit News

Dearborn — Ford Motor Co.’s announcement Monday that it will begin shuttling employees around its Dearborn campus in self-driving cars in 2018 is the latest step on its path to a fully autonomous future.

The automaker in recent weeks has offered details on how it will bridge the gap from the semi-autonomous driver-assist technologies of today to the no-driver-needed cars of tomorrow.

Last month, it vowed to implement a high-volume, commercial ride-share service in 2021 using driverless cars with no steering wheels or pedals. Late last week, it said it would expand into bicycle sharing and ride-hailing shuttle services to offset the expected decline in vehicle ownership as autonomous cars change consumer needs.

And Monday, it showed how far the technology has come by demonstrating the performance of a fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid on a 11/2-mile stretch of public roads in Dearborn. The white sedans were equipped with four short-range radars, two long-range radars, five cameras and four LiDAR (light-detection and ranging) sensors.

The test Fusions started the route by turning right on Village Road at Ford’s Product Development Center. It encountered a number of traffic lights and pedestrian crosswalks and handled each perfectly. The driver, research engineer Gassan Atmeh, was available to take over in an emergency but did not touch the steering wheel or pedals during the 15-minute trip.

The route was, for the most part, scripted. Ford had a designated passenger cross at an intersection, and purposely chose certain high-traffic intersections. But at one point, on South Military Road, a pedestrian crossed the street unexpectedly.

The car reacted flawlessly, stopping in plenty of time to let the person cross the street before continuing on its drive.

Despite its ability to navigate the route, the vehicle operated much more cautiously than normal human drivers. It came to complete stops at each stop sign, waited for cars to fully cross intersections before it began to move, and waited a few seconds while a pedestrian crosswalk sign was flashing, even though no pedestrians were walking.

The vehicle was also programmed to go the speed limit.

“We’re still working on improving the algorithms, capturing intent of pedestrians, changing the experience of the vehicle so it’s more human-like,” said Ken Washington, Ford’s vice president of research and advanced engineering. “We think it’s absolutely possible to make the vehicle drive a little more human-like, while still being extremely safe and conservative.”

The service for Ford employees will rely solely on the capabilities of the car; Ford will not connect to any traffic lights, roadside sensors or other infrastructure. Employees will be able to use the car to move from building to building on Ford’s campus.

“It’s a way for us to do a bit of learning so we can continue to advance and develop the capability,” Washington said. He said Ford hasn’t determined what vehicles will offer the service, but it will likely be something similar to the Fusions Ford has been testing for years.

Ford revealed its intent to eventually offer an autonomous service to employees during a campus renovation announcement earlier this year, but Monday was the first time it offered a specific time frame. The automaker is renovating its product development campus to eventually house 24,000 employees on 4.5 million square feet of space.

Monday’s news of an employee-only autonomous service is a middle step before the automaker’s first self-driving public implementation in 2021. And President and CEO Mark Fields said such vehicles likely won’t be ready for sale directly to the public until at least the middle of next decade.

Michael Harley, analyst for Kelley Blue Book, said, “The mid-2020s are a lifetime away in terms of how rapidly automotive technology is advancing, but the comments from Mark Fields reveal that Ford is confident in the technology and openly embracing a driverless world.”

Ford isn’t alone in implementing driverless cars on public roads, and some of its competitors are offering them sooner than it will. Uber will soon launch autonomous cabs in Pittsburgh, and both Delphi Automotive and nuTonomy are offering driverless taxis in Singapore. General Motors Co. has announced similar intentions to offer autonomous cars through commercial services within “the next couple years.” GM plans to offer an autonomous shuttle service for employees later this year at its Warren Tech Center.

Fields said the fact that others are making their moves before Ford doesn’t mean it’s behind.

“We’ve been at this for over 10 years now,” Fields said. “Don’t confuse activity with progress.”

Twitter: @MikeMartinez_DN