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Ford aims to spark interest in self-driving vehicles of the future with new MiSci exhibit

Jordyn Grzelewski
The Detroit News

It will still be a couple of years before passengers can cruise in one of Ford Motor Co.'s planned self-driving vehicles. But in the meantime, they can get a taste of the experience at Michigan Science Center.

MiSci on Friday debuted its first-ever autonomous vehicle exhibit, designed and built by Ford engineers. The interactive exhibit, which came to fruition after a year of planning, aims to educate the public about nascent self-driving technology and to spark the interest of the next generation of scientists, mathematicians and engineers who will one day design the vehicles of the future.

"We wanted to give kids the chance to experience, in a very human way, what an autonomous vehicle will see, how it will think, and how it will act when it's deployed into future driving environments," John Rich, Ford's director of autonomous vehicle technology, told The Detroit News. 

John Rich, right, Director of Autonomous Vehicle Technology, Ford Autonomous Vehicles LLC, and Lucinda Yuen, Global Product Development Strategic Planning, Ford Motor Company, tour the new Ford Motor Company autonomous vehicle exhibit at the Michigan Science Center on Wednesday, August 5, 2020.

The exhibit, which will be on display at MiSci indefinitely, was designed in a similar way to how the Dearborn automaker designs its actual vehicles. First, a team of Ford designers and engineers visited MiSci to learn what would interest their "customer" — in this case, kids who visit the museum.

From this, they came up with an interactive concept featuring electronic elements and the option to take a selfie inside the exhibit.

At the front of the model autonomous vehicle, a screen features an interactive LiDAR simulation that is meant to simulate how driverless vehicles "see."

"It shoots out lasers," explained Lucinda Yuen, who works on global product development strategy and planning at Ford and was on the team that devised the exhibit. "Then there are sensors on the car that collect the light reflected back."

Visitors can then hop into the vehicle to get the experience of a self-driving vehicle passenger. There, kids can take a selfie and send it to themselves. And on the back of the display, additional materials explain a bit more about the technology.

The goal is to help the public understand how autonomous vehicles operate without a human driver, by using data they collect from maps, cameras, sensors and LiDAR.

"We tried to explain something very complicated, simply by using a human analogy," said Yuen. "You use your eyes to see; a car uses LiDAR to see. You use your brain to make decisions on should you stop or should you go; the car uses a computer and algorithms."

Kerry Doman and Carrie Budzinski of LittleGuide Detroit, a website highlighting things for families to do in Metro Detroit, brought their respective sons, Saverio, 3, and Lucas, 4, for an early look at the exhibit this week.

Saverio at one point waved curiously at the LiDAR screen, his pixelated image waving back, and both boys enjoyed the selfie feature. The consensus was the exhibit was "cool."

"I think the interactive ability to see the screen and wave to it is something all kids will really enjoy," said Doman, of Detroit, a MiSci member and frequent visitor.

Carrie Budzinski (from right), her son Lucas Budzinski, Saverio and Kerry Doman take a selfie inside new Ford Motor Company autonomous vehicle on exhibit at the Michigan Science Center on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Michigan Science Center partnered with Ford Motor Company. The exhibit built Ford engineers and developers working closely with Michigan Science Center for this one-of-a-kind exhibit resembles a vehicle of the future

The unveiling of the exhibit comes as the Blue Oval moves forward in its partnership with self-driving software company Argo AI. Via a venture in which both Ford and Volkswagen AG have invested, Argo AI is developing a self-driving platform the automakers will integrate into their own products. Ford has committed to investing $1 billion in that enterprise.

Ford is currently conducting test drives in Detroit, Palo Alto, Pittsburgh, Austin, Miami, and Washington, D.C., with plans to begin rolling out self-driving services in the latter three cities in 2022 (the target initially was 2021, but Ford said earlier this year plans had been delayed due to the pandemic).

The Blue Oval has committed to investing more than $4 billion in its autonomous vehicle business — led by a unit based at Ford's under-construction Corktown campus — through 2023. 

Ford's goal may be to inspire kids to someday join its workforce, but it's also to help the public become more knowledgable of, and comfortable with, a technology that is seen as a significant part of the automotive industry's future but is not yet fully developed or widely used

"There are a ton of misconceptions (about AV technology)," said Rich. "How it will operate. ... What its capabilities will and will not be. Most critically, we want people to understand that these are incredibly safe devices. When we get to the point of deploying them without a driver, they will be validated to a degree of safety that is exceptional."

Lucas Budzinski (right) and Saverio are dwarfed by new Ford Motor Company autonomous vehicle exhibit at the Michigan Science Center on Wednesday, August 5, 2020. Michigan Science Center partnered with Ford Motor Company. The exhibit built Ford engineers and developers working closely with Michigan Science Center for this one-of-a-kind exhibit resembles a vehicle of the future

Admission to MiSci is free through Sept. 7, thanks to a sponsorship of its "Summer of Science" by Aramco Americas. The museum is limiting daily admissions due to the coronavirus pandemic; guests can reserve a space online at Mi-Sci.org.

With school reopening plans still up in the air, and learning time already lost due to the pandemic, MiSci is hoping to draw in families in need of some educational support, said Christian Greer, MiSci president and CEO.

The museum has been reconfigured to accommodate social distancing, exhibits are routinely sanitized, and masks are required inside the facility, among other health and safety measures the museum is taking to protect guests from COVID-19 transmission.

MiSci reopened in July after closing in March: "I engaged the team to think about ways we could make ourselves more accessible, more affordable," said Greer. "That way families strapped for cash or who are out of work wouldn't have to lose ground with their STEM education. ... We realize now more than ever, informal STEM organizations like ours are critical to K-12 education."

jgrzelewski@detroitnews.com

Twitter: @JGrzelewski