Detroit and its suburbs are designed for driving fast. It’s a metropolitan area connected by high-speed freeways and sprawling mile roads, and was purposely designed without a public transportation system to support its predominant export — the automobile. It’s also the city where I learned to drive: uphill with a stick shift, as a student driver, learning how to safely take my life in my own hands.
Detroit is not the city I associate with autonomous cars, but it soon may be. On Monday, Ford Motor Company announced plans to sell autonomous cars to the public by 2025. I hopped in the back seat of a self-driving Ford Fusion at the company’s Product Development Center in Dearborn, Michigan on Monday to get a glimpse into what that autonomous future could feel like.
Unlike the rite of passage of becoming a student driver, taking a ride in an autonomous car means mean putting your life in the hands of the machine. But in actuality, riding in Ford’s well-behaved self-driving car was an unremarkable experience. Ford has programmed its cars to drive in a manner one might expect from a nervous student driver. It took long pauses to wait for pedestrians to cross at the intersection. It braked for several seconds after a full-size F-150 pulled out in front of it. The short ride through Ford’s sprawling campus consisted of a series of turns and speeds under 30 miles per hour, and Google has been giving journalists rides for several years. Except that this was suburban Detroit, a place not known for its groundbreaking software innovation. In a mere two years, Ford employees will be invited to use its autonomous cars to move around the campus.
I rode in the backseat while two Ford software engineers rode up front, though the one in the driver’s seat made it a point to keep his hands off the wheel. The other engineer pulled up his laptop where the data and images collected from our trip was processed on the screen. When I asked their thoughts on self-driving cars, they both responded enthusiastically about how their work could change how we live. It’s been a long time since cars from Detroit have reshaped the way the world works.
Self-driving on roads around a company parking lot at low speeds feels like a bit of a parlor trick, and it’s hard to imagine this current system navigating the confusion of big cities. But Ford’s glimpse into the future is meant to show that the company is serious about its plans to bring a self-driving car to the ride-share market in 2021 and eventually to dealerships. Ford is enthusiastic about what self-driving will mean to its future, and plans to grow its presence in Silicon Valley.
The automaker is in the process of recasting itself as a mobility company. By getting in on autonomous vehicles early, Ford is keen to shift its image as an old-world automaker. "We have been system integrating for a long time, hardware, software, and technology," Ford CEO Mark Fields told me after the ride ended. "That’s why we’re so excited about the development and how quickly the development is going forward and that’s why we’re aiming to have the vehicle in the market by 2021."
Asked how Ford’s autonomous car would be accepted by the public, Fields said, "When you stand back and you think about the societal, the safety, the environmental and the economic benefits, I think people are going to warm to it very quickly."
In August, Ford announced intentions to bring a fully autonomous vehicle — essentially cars without steering wheels or brake pedals — to the ride-sharing space in five years. In a speech Monday, Fields told reporters that by mid-decade people could buy self-driving cars and he hopes to make the technology available to millions.
Ford began developing its self-driving technology in 2005, more than 10 years ago, but over the last year has taken an aggressive public approach to be a leader in the autonomous space. It’s far from alone: BMW and Volvo have also made recent announcements about their self-driving platforms, with similar timetables, but their approaches vary. Apple, too, has something in the works.
Maps are an essential part of the self-driving car network, and there are several ways to gather and process information in autonomous vehicles. Ford starts with an existing "prior map" that includes things like stop signs and landmarks. A second real-time color map is overlaid to detect changes. It’s designed to function like the human brain and retina do when driving by using a combination of sensors. "If you’re using a prior map and something is not noted, you focus the camera on it. You want to know if it’s stationary and mobile and the potential for it to move," says Randy Visintainer, Ford’s director for autonomous vehicles.
Ford’s system relies on three main types of sensors — LIDAR, radar, and cameras — that operate to gather information about the surrounding environment to achieve both a direct and mediated approach. Radar emits radio frequencies to gather information, whereas LIDAR uses lasers to collect data through lightwaves that project a 360-degree view around the car. Both systems bounce signals off the environment around them, then read what comes back to paint a picture. Cameras work like the human eye to capture what is already there, and are considered more passive sensors.
Ford has also invested in Velodyne, a supplier that is developing its next generation of LIDAR. The improved LIDAR is smaller and more powerful, and will enable the cars to see 200 meters in the distance. It’ll be used to help navigate left hand turns on Ford’s self-driving car by the end of the year. The automaker is also currently investigating using more advanced cameras and is in talks with suppliers to determine its approach.
At the moment, LIDAR sensors are expensive, but by working with a large company like Ford, the costs of Velodyne’s LIDAR sensors are expected to drop. "Over the time prices come down, it’s a technology that hasn’t benefited from economy of scale," Visintainer says. "One of the reasons we invested in Velodyne is that we know how to take something in bring it to mass production. We know how to make hundreds of thousands of something reliably."
It occurred to me as I left the Product Development Center that if Ford is successful, and can make millions of self-driving cars, one day we might not need to worry about nervous student drivers on the road. We won’t let teenagers take their lives in their own hands. We’ll put our trust in the robots doing the driving.