Ford is the first company to test driverless cars in the Mcity, hoping to perfect the technology. Ford is joined in the race to end driving by Californian tech giants Google, Apple, and Tesla. The promise of an autonomous car has been delayed a number of times, but the wait might end soon.
According to NBC News, Ford is testing autonomous versions of its Fusion line in Mcity, a 32-acre testing area designed by the University of Michigan.
Raj Najir, Ford vice president of global product development, released a statement that explained the advantages of the fake city.
“Testing Ford’s autonomous vehicle fleet at Mcity provides another challenging, yet safe, urban environment to repeatedly check and hone these new technologies.”
The facility has nearly everything a car would normally encounter in an real-world situation, including street lights, crosswalks, lane delineators, curb cuts, bike lanes, trees, hydrants, sidewalks, signs, and traffic control devices.
The thing Mcity is missing, aside from pot holes, is humans. That allows the cars to be tested with “maximum evil” according to University of Michigan engineering professor Ryan Eustice.
“The public tends to think that self-driving cars are here, but the reality is that some of the (environment) sensing tech isn’t fully baked yet. To truly have this roll out nationwide, these cars would have to be ready for all sorts of weather and situations.”
Eustice and the University of Michigan has been working with Ford on the project since 2006 according to USA Today. That doesn’t mean the car maker is preparing to suddenly rip drivers away from their wheels.
Instead, the company is describing the Ford Smart Mobility plan as a “top-down and bottom-up approach.” That means the company plans to roll out autonomous driving in small doses, like with its warnings for lane changes and imminent collisions.
Still, Ford is eager to stay ahead of the competition and Mcity is part of their strategy to do so.
As Michigan University director of Mobility Transformation Center Peter Sweatman explained, “The goal of Mcity is simply to get the technology off our fake streets and on to real streets as quickly as possible.”
According to a release from the company, every mile of driving in Mcity is like 10, 100 or even 1,000 miles of on-road experience because of all the obstacles that can be packed into the artificial environment. Still, there are factors that can be difficult to test.
Ford’s current technology utilizes cameras, radar, LiDAR sensors and real-time 3D mapping technology to allow the driverless cars to navigate, but certain weather can blind those systems. Blizzard conditions, for example, can take away an autonomous car’s depth perception.
Despite the potential obstacles, earlier in January, Ford’s CEO predicted that we’d have fully autonomous cars in five years. That was a sentiment echoed by Google, which has also been testing driverless vehicles since 2008 on both closed facilities and real streets in Mountain View and Austin.
As for Ford, the company first introduced the autonomous Fusion in 2013. Now, it’s in the advanced engineering phase, meaning that they’re trying to work out a production process for the car. At the same time, tests, like the ones in Mcity, are set to fine tune the algorithms that allow the driverless cars to navigate.
[Image via the University of Michigan]