New Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicle could foreshadow company's moves at CES

Ford recently announced its latest Ford Fusion development vehicles for its work in autonomous cars. This gets the firm one step closer to its goal of fully autonomous vehicles by 2021.

Image: Ford

Three years after Ford first took its autonomous research vehicles to the streets, the company unveiled its next-generation Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous development vehicle.

The announcement was made in a blog post penned by Ford's autonomous vehicle development head, Chris Brewer, and could give a glimpse into what the company has planned for the 2017 Consumer Electronics Show (CES). Ford's ultimate goal, as explained by Brewer, is to develop a fully-autonomous vehicle by 2021. This announcement is a step toward that goal.

This development vehicle makes use of the current Ford autonomous vehicle platform, improving on processing power, electrical controls, and sensors. The car, Brewer said, also has new LiDAR sensors that can gather the same amount of data as previous iterations, but with half as many sensors installed.

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The new vehicle also improves upon the virtual driver system. According to the blog post, the system is composed of the following elements:

  • Sensors -- LiDAR, cameras and radar
  • Algorithms for localization and path planning
  • Computer vision and machine learning
  • Highly detailed 3D maps
  • Computational and electronics horsepower to make it all work

For Ford to reach its goal, it must develop a vehicle that can be certified as SAE-defined level 4-capable. However, to take the human driver completely out of the equation, the development team had to ask new questions, Brewer said, such as "How do you replicate everything a human driver does behind the wheel in a vehicle that drives itself?"

To improve the virtual driver system, Brewer said that the engineers at Ford are working on both mediated perception and direct perception for the vehicle. In a general sense, mediated perception takes in data from the sensors and compares it to 3D maps of the areas and known rules of the road. Direct perception is a complementary method that helps the vehicle understand where it is positioned, and takes into account elements such as pedestrians, cyclists, and hand signals from a police officer, for example.

The processing "brain" of the vehicle sits in the trunk, generating roughly 1 terabyte of data an hour . According to the post, that is "more than the average person would use in mobile-phone data in 45 years." An additional power converted keeps everything working as it should.

Ford is already testing autonomous vehicles in Michigan, California and Arizona. And Brewer's post said that the company hopes to have close to 90 cars on the road in 2017.

The automaker also recently outlined new efforts in electric vehicles as well, unveiling seven of the proposed 13 electric models, and debuting a new wireless charging technology that could simplify the charging process.

With its increased efforts in autonomous vehicles, electric vehicles, and mobility, Ford will be a major player at the 2017 CES in Las Vegas. The company will likely expand on its efforts in autonomous vehicles and give a clearer vision of their roadmap to fully-autonomous cars by 2021.

The 3 big takeaways for TechRepublic readers

  1. Ford recently unveiled its newest Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous development vehicle, with improvements to the autonomous vehicle platform and virtual driver system.
  2. Ford also announced new initiatives in electric vehicles, including a new wireless charging technology.
  3. Electric and autonomous vehicles will likely be the main focuses of Ford's work at the 2017 CES.

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