Innovation

How Ford's autonomous cars can see in the dark, even without headlights

In a recent test, Ford's self-driving Fusion was able to use LiDAR technology and 3D maps to successfully navigate in total darkness.

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Image: Ford

Ford's autonomous car can officially see in the dark. On Monday, the automaker released the results of recent research showing how a Ford Fusion with self-driving capabilities was able to navigate a test course at the Ford Arizona Proving Ground in complete darkness, without the help of headlights.

The vehicle used Velodyne LiDAR technology and 3D maps to accomplish its drive. It should be noted that there isn't a reason that the LiDAR wouldn't be able to perform in a no-light situation, as it uses self-emitted lasers to illuminate and map its surroundings.

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However, many self-driving cars also rely on special cameras and radar technologies as well. Ford acknowledged this, saying that having all three technologies present is the best option, but the research shows that LiDAR "can function independently on roads without stoplights." It is important to note the "without stoplights" clause, as this severely limits night driving in most instances.

That said, it is still an important accomplishment in the autonomous car market to have a vehicle able to operate in complete darkness. The main marketing push for autonomous vehicles from automobile manufacturers and tech companies alike is the perceived increase in safety that comes with a car that can drive itself. If a company is able to confirm that there will be no change in performance regardless of the time of day or available light, it could be one more step forward for these vehicles.

As mentioned in Ford's press release, the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) found that vehicle fatalities three times more often when it is dark outside than when it is light. If Ford's Fusion can truly "perform beyond the limits of human drivers," it could potentially lessen that ratio, or eliminate it altogether.

"Thanks to LiDAR, the test cars aren't reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt," says Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. "In fact, LiDAR allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day."

SEE: Ford taps IBM for data analytics to win the connected car race (TechRepublic)

In addition to the LiDAR technology, the test car also used 3D maps of the surrounding area to get where it was going. The pulses from the LiDAR, which happen about 2.8 million times a second, helped the car understand where it was on the map as it was driving.

To chart the vehicle, Ford researchers monitored its performance from both inside and outside of the automobile, using a light grid to see if the car would stay on course. Ford researcher Wayne Williams said the Ford Fusion moved "precisely" along the desert roads it was tested on.

Ford has recently been testing its autonomous fleet in other hazardous conditions such as snow, earlier this year. Additionally, Google added rain to its testing conditions in February as well. It's clear that accounting for non-standard driving situations will be a key hurdle to making autonomous vehicles ready for general public use.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Ford's autonomous Fusion sedan recently navigated a desert road in complete darkness, using only its LiDAR system and 3D maps of the area, however, it can only work on roads without stoplights.
  2. This advancement is a step forward for making autonomous vehicles more safe, and could eventually help make them ready for use by the general public.
  3. Along with Ford, other key automakers have been increasingly testing for dangerous and non-standard road conditions, meaning this kind of research will be a core piece of the future of autonomous vehicles.

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About Conner Forrest

Conner Forrest is a Senior Editor for TechRepublic. He covers enterprise technology and is interested in the convergence of tech and culture.

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