Ford to triple size of autonomous test fleet in 2017

Ian Thibodeau

Ford Motor Co. will triple the number of autonomous test vehicles in its fleet in 2017, the company announced Wednesday.

The expansion builds on the addition of 20 second-generation Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Development Vehicles to its original 10-car fleet in 2016. The company will expand the fleet to 90 total vehicles by the end of next year with the addition of 60 more cars.

Ford is testing the driverless cars in Michigan, California and Arizona; drivers are behind the steering wheel, ready to take over in an emergency. Some of the latest vehicles have been on the road for sensor calibration, according to company spokesman Alan Hall, but a “bulk of the testing” will start in the first quarter of 2017.

Ford has said it will have a fully driverless car without a steering wheel or pedals for braking and acceleration in 2021.

The first-generation Fusion Hybrid fleet started testing in 2013. The cars were used to test “current and future sensing systems and driver-assist technologies.”

The latest test vehicles up “processing power with new computer hardware,” according to Chris Brewer, chief program engineer for Ford’s Autonomous Vehicle Development. “Electrical controls are closer to production-ready, and adjustments to the sensor technology, including placement, allow the car to better see what’s around it.”

The second-generation vehicles will test new LiDar sensors that have a “more targeted field of vision.” It improves on Ford’s virtual driver system, which includes cameras, radar and LiDar sensors; algorithms for path planning; computer vision and machine learning; 3D maps; and advanced electronic systems.

“Building a car that will not be controlled by a human driver is completely different from designing a conventional vehicle,” Brewer wrote in a blog post on Ford’s website. “This raises a whole new set of questions for our autonomous vehicle engineering team.”

With the new additions, engineers are currently working on how the cars “see,” according to the Brewer. The new cars will also take data acquired from sensors and cameras and compare with 3D maps in the cars’ brains, which are located in the trunk.

The cars will still have steering wheels and pedals, Brewer said.

The new test vehicle will be displayed for the first time at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas. It will be on display during media days at the North American International Auto Show as well.

When the autonomous vehicles do hit the road, the cars would be available only for commercial applications like ride-sharing first.

Raj Nair, Ford’s head of global product development and chief technical officer, told The Detroit News in August that full autonomy extends driving opportunities to the disabled and elderly that semi-autonomous systems don’t offer. And it allows ride-sharing services to cut out a large expense: drivers.

“We abandoned the stepping-stone approach of driver-assist technologies and decided we’d take the full leap to deliver a fully autonomous level four-capable vehicle,” Nair said then. He says it’s safer to develop a system that can be in control 100 percent of the time. “We believe we’re taking a unique approach in the industry.”

Twitter: @Ian_Thibodeau