Autonomous Driving Picking up Speed at Ford

Company's engineers honored for penning technical paper on the subject.

Cars that drive themselves may sound like the stuff of science fiction, but Ford Motor Co. says it is making inroads in the advancement of autonomous driving technologies.

"At Ford, the process has already begun with the introduction of collision-avoidance technologies such as adaptive cruise control, lane-departure warning and blind-spot information system, and the new MyFord Touch driver interface," explains Jeffrey Rupp, who has led the Ford Active Safety team's research for the past nine years. "All act as fundamental building blocks, guiding and nurturing our customers to the next level in personal transportation."

Rupp, along with fellow Ford engineer Anthony King, co-authored the technical paper "Autonomous Driving-A Practical Roadmap," which recently received the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International's Trevor O. Jones Outstanding Paper Award.

Presented earlier this week at the 2010 SAE Convergence conference in Detroit, the Trevor O. Jones award acknowledges papers for their originality, value and insightfulness about trends in automotive electronics, and is named after Convergence founder and transportation electronics pioneer Trevor Jones.

"Fully implemented autonomous driving will represent a much-needed change in automobile safety philosophy by moving away from crash survival to one of effective crash avoidance," Jones says. "I'm most pleased that the Ford paper on this topic was selected for this prestigious award."

Ford says it is taking a "practical, consumer-driven approach to advancing the field of autonomous driving" and is urging widespread collaboration with academia, government, suppliers and other stakeholders.

"We have to take a holistic approach to autonomous driving, and that can only come with input from many different sources," Rupp says. "Something as complex as a fully autonomous vehicle can only be achieved by taking careful evolutionary steps, rather than one revolutionary leap."

Future of the Driverless Vehicle

Although not new in theory, the idea of autonomous driving or the self-driving car continues to gain momentum as electronics, robotics and computing power improves. Recently, Google announced that its engineering team has been conducting on-road experiments with self-driving cars that it has equipped with detection, video, motion sensors and GPS technology.

"Autonomous vehicles will likely need to be better drivers than humans before they gain initial acceptance, let alone widespread implementation," Rupp says. "I applaud Google's efforts to align itself with some of the top-ranked experts in this area and make a tangible contribution to progress. The invaluable work they have done mapping the earth is an important building block to making more autonomous driving a reality.

"At Ford, we believe we have an obligation to our customers to bring them along step-by-step, if a fully autonomous vehicle is ever going to be a safe alternative that is welcome and widely accepted."

For decades, Rupp and other Ford researchers have been studying and making significant advances in technologies such as radar, sensing and detection, which are critical for autonomous vehicle applications, according to the company.

Ford claims that it launched the world's first-to-market radar-based adaptive cruise-control system with braking for an automobile in 1999 on the Jaguar XKR after seven years of extensive controls development and testing. The following year, Ford introduced electronic stability control (ESC), with ESC with roll stability control launching soon after.

By 2001, Ford created a separate Active Safety engineering team to focus specifically on the rapid development and long-term potential of driver support, accident avoidance and autonomous driver systems.

As a result, other available semiautonomous technologies soon followed for Ford products, including lane-departure warning, blind-spot information system with cross-traffic alert, collision warning with brake support, and active park assist. All of these act as a springboard to a more autonomous vehicle experience, according to the company.

"Knowing our customer base, Ford's position is that what consumers really want is not a driverless car, but rather a car that can drive itself with manual assistance when needed," says Rupp. "You, the driver, are still managing the overall process, akin to the captain of a ship or autopilot, but you are not necessarily locked into the moment-to-moment tasks of driving."

Ford Moving Forward -- Cautiously

An active participant in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-controlled autonomous vehicle challenges in 2004, 2005 and 2007, Ford says it continues to test related driver-assist and vehicle-to-vehicle communication technologies with research vehicles today. In addition, Ford has collected thousands of miles of road data through its "Mother of All Road Trips" (MOART), a 25-state, 60,000-mile data-collection project designed to help engineers fine-tune driver-assist system algorithms to prevent false alerts.

Although lessons learned from DARPA, MOART and other on-site experiments are being translated for yet-to-be-announced near-term vehicle features, the Ford engineering team still agrees that driverless-car technology is not ready for real-world applications and that consumers are not ready to totally give up control of their mobility.

Building on this premise, Ford says it is examining the more consumer-driven aspects of creating an autonomous vehicle environment, including:

  • Outlining those tasks automotive consumers wish were more efficient.
  • What can be done to improve the human-machine user interface for more accurate situational awareness support.
  • How to make the transition from being the "driver" of the car to becoming the "operator" of the car seamless, safe and comfortable for the customer.
"We need to take the time to understand true consumer values, and then work together with multiple industry partners to engineer the technology and infrastructure for a safe, secure driving experience; ones that inspires consumer confidence," says Rupp.
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