On a sunny September afternoon in Dearborn, MI, I climbed into the back seat of a white Ford Fusion. But this was not an ordinary drive—I was at Ford's Product Development Center, about to take a ride in a completely self-driving car.
As part of the sixth annual Further with Ford conference, I was one of the lucky media members to be invited on a special "autonomous vehicle" ride. Up in the front of the car, two Ford engineers, Scott Varnhagen, supervisor for autonomous vehicle motion controls, and Alice Kassar, automated driving engineer, explained how the car worked. I observed from the back, along with Chris Paukert, managing editor of Roadshow by CNET.
Here's the video of our ride:
The Fusion was equipped with long-range radar, forward-looking cameras, surround cameras, and LiDAR, the sensors on top of the car that spin and give a 360 degree view around the car. The cameras and sensors enabled it to navigate a loop that included a parking lot, public road, pedestrian crosswalks, and a four-way traffic light. Here's the map of our route, and the technology that made the self-drive possible:
The sensors matched what they saw around the car with what was stored in a prior map. A Ford engineer later explained that the route was driven first to collect data, which matched up with a map—and that the route had to be driven first by a human before the car could self-drive. Relying on the map, in this case, could be useful in inclement weather: If snow fell on the road, for instance, the map would let the car know where the lane markings were, even if the cameras were blocked.
Although the Ford Fusion had a steering wheel and brakes, which Varnhagen said could be re-engaged at any point to take over control, Ford plans to eventually remove them. The auto giant recently announced plans to unveil a completely autonomous, level-4 car by 2021. These fully-autonomous cars, CEO Mark Fields has said, will most likely first appear in ride-shares.
After our drive, I asked around to see what other media members thought. The ride, it seemed, had completely different effects depending on whether the rider had already had experience in an autonomous vehicle.
"Ford's self-driving Fusion Hybrid was surreal to ride along in," said Darren Murph, global editor-in-chief of TechRadar. "I liken it to using Gogo to send emails in the sky—I have a feeling that no matter how many times a car drives me around, even 10-plus years from now, it'll feel like the future."
Murph was especially impressed with the Fusion's performance in intersections. "It accelerated and braked like a human would, and overall, felt even safer than if a human were driving," he said.
"I know what it feels like to drive tired, or frustrated, or distracted," said Murph. "It's actually something of a relief to let an unbiased, undistracted computer do the driving."
SEE: Why Ford refuses to dismiss Tesla as an autonomous driving competitor (TechRepublic)
Paukert, on the other hand, was "underwhelmed."
After testing an autonomous Nissan Leaf in live Tokyo traffic last year, he noted that this was nothing he hadn't already experienced before. Plus, the Leaf self-drove in "a lot more chaotic, dynamic and 'threat rich,' environment," Paukert said.
I had a similar reaction to Paukert. After testing out Tesla's Autopilot in Palo Alto in May, the Ford experience seemed less exhilarating. For one, I had been in the driver's seat during my Autopilot ride. And we were going 70 miles an hour down a highway. The Ford ride, by comparison, was driven at a much slower speed, closer to 20 miles per hour, and felt slightly more staged.
Still, there are reasons to separate the Tesla experience, which was driven with an autonomous driving feature—not to be confused with a self-driving car—and Ford's fully-autonomous ride. Tesla and Ford have different approaches to autonomous driving, with the former company focusing on releasing technology incrementally, as it comes out, and learning from the real-world miles driven. Ford, on the other hand, has been more conservative in releasing the technology—and, instead of offering it up along the way, won't make the technology available to consumers until it has come so far that there is no option for a human driver to intervene.
One of the major hurdles, according to the engineers, is understanding the behavior of other drivers. At a four-way light, for example, our car took a very long time to make a left turn—which, it should be acknowledged, is still an impressive feat. Paukert noted this, as well. "Their system has a pretty strong 'after you' complex at four-way stops, which makes sense," he said.
But Ford's overly-cautious approach did make me wonder: What happens when other drivers on the road have a less-polite driving style?
- Autonomous driving levels 0 to 5: Understanding the differences (TechRepublic)
- Ford CEO promises autonomous vehicles for mass transit by 2021 (ZDNet)
- Ford executive chairman on Ford GT and autonomous cars (CBS News)
- Ford: Self-driving cars are five years away from changing the world (ZDNet)
- How Ford's autonomous cars can see in the dark, even without headlights (TechRepublic)
- Ford taps IBM for data analytics to win the connected car race (TechRepublic)
- Photos: A list of the world's self-driving cars racing toward 2020 (TechRepublic)
Hope Reese has nothing to disclose. She doesn't hold investments in the technology companies she covers.
Hope Reese is a Staff Writer for TechRepublic. She covers the intersection of technology and society, examining the people and ideas that transform how we live today.