MIT students Justin Miller and Wally Wibowo of the Aerospace Controls Lab work on vehicles outfitted with sensors that match those of selfdriving cars Ford Motor Co.

MIT students Justin Miller and Wally Wibowo of the Aerospace Controls Lab work on vehicles outfitted with sensors that match those of self-driving cars.

Ford, MIT to Collect Pedestrian Data for Self-Driving Research

Small electric shuttles that can navigate sidewalks will use LiDAR sensors and cameras to track movement and predict demand for public transit.

Connected cars are old news—so how about connected pedestrians? Ford and MIT’s Aerospace Controls Lab are collaborating on a project to collect data on pedestrian movement that may, among other uses, help self-driving vehicles with navigation.

LiDAR sensors and cameras, installed on sprightly electric shuttles traveling along byways of Cambridge, Mass, will collect the data, Ken Washington, vice president of research and advanced engineering at Ford, said in a press release. The on-demand shuttles are small enough to operate on campus sidewalks and have weather enclosures to keep out wind, rain and snow.

Initially, the data will help predict shuttle demand, and researchers and drivers can then route shuttles to areas with the highest need.

Since its first self-driving car (a Toyota Prius) hit the road in California in 2009, Google has been collecting data on how its autonomous vehicles interact with pedestrians on public roadways. It now has self-driving cars on roads in Washington, Arizona and Texas as well. Google’s Self-Driving Car Project uses that data to develop algorithms that tell the car how to behave in very specific situations—as specific as a woman in a wheelchair chasing a duck with a broom, in one well-publicized case.

Competitors who are newer to the self-driving experiment must either play catch-up on their data collection or acquire mapping data from other sources.

The shuttles have been documenting pedestrian flow, but without passengers, for the past five months. Ford and MIT researchers plan to introduce three of the shuttles to a group of MIT students and faculty in September. The group will use a smartphone app to hail a vehicle and request dropoff.

The mobility research project is one of more than 30 such collaborations between Ford and universities in the U.S., Germany and China, the press release said.  

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