I have been to the future and it’s amazing.
At the Ford Trends event in Detroit, I heard Mark Fields, Ford’s President and CEO announce that by 2021 Ford will have a high-volume autonomous vehicles on the road. Ford currently has several technologies in their vehicles that assist the driver at a touch of a button (such as self-park) but “high-volume autonomous vehicles” is a long road from self-parking to removing the steering wheel from the vehicle.
In order to understand that enormity of the task that Ford has committed to, we need to look at the various levels of Autonomous Driving Cars.
4 Levels of autonomous vehicles
In 2013, the US Department of Transportation’s National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) defined five different levels of autonomous driving as follows:
- Level 0 – No-Automation: – The driver is in complete and sole control of the primary vehicle controls – brake, steering, throttle, and motive power – at all times.
- Level 1 – Function-specific Automation: – Most of the vehicles functions are controlled by the driver however at specific point functions are automatically handled by the vehicle. An example of this would be electronic stability control or pre-charged brakes, where the vehicle automatically assists with braking to enable the driver to regain control of the vehicle or stop faster than possible by acting alone.
- Level 2 – Combined Function Automation: – This level involves automation of at least two primary control functions designed to work in unison to relieve the driver of control of those functions. An example of combined functions enabling a Level 2 system is adaptive cruise control in combination with lane centering. At this level the driver can disengage from driving the vehicle but will be ready at any point to take over.
- Level 3 – Limited Self-Driving Automation: At this level, the vehicle takes full control of all safety-critical functions under certain traffic conditions. However, at any point the vehicle can hand control back to the driver.
- Level 4 – Full Self-Driving Automation: The vehicle is designed to perform all driving functions for an entire trip.
Most vehicles on the road today are at Level 0 ie. 100% controlled by a human driver. It’s a big leap to think of the vehicles of the future being at Level 4 will be vehicles that will not even have controls such as steering wheel or acceleration and breaking pedals.
The Future is Here TODAY
In order to achieve the vision of a driverless car, Ford is investing heavily in unifying the traditional motoring mechanics with high-tech systems. In fact, Ford has a fleet of fully functioning autonomous vehicles driving around the Ford campus. Their current mission is to log as many situations as possible in order to make decisions and take appropriate actions in every conceivable situation keeping everyone safe.
And that is not simple.
If you think about the task of changing lanes on the freeway. You currently look ahead at other vehicles travelling in the same direction as you are, you look in your mirror to see if there are any vehicle accelerating in the lane you want to enter, then you look over your shoulder to see there is no vehicle next to you, and if no conditions change, then you indicate and move your steering wheel applying a little more gas and then change lane. All of this needs to be programmed into the computer system.
Now apply the “what if” question: What if the car in front slows down, what if there suddenly a car next to you, what happens if there are road works in the lane you want to enter etc. As a human driver, you can make those decisions, but a computer needs to be told what to do under every “what if” situation.
And this is only one driving situation example. What about overtaking, changing lanes against oncoming traffic, making a left-hand turn at a traffic light that has no “green left” signal, or how does the car deal with a faulty traffic light or a policeman instructing the vehicle to go when it’s “technically” illegal such as across a solid line. These situations go on and on and each one needs to be dealt with.
I rode in an Autonomous vehicle and loved it
During my time with Ford, I had the amazing opportunity to ride in Ford’s driverless car around several miles of the Ford campus. It is important to note that the drive was not set on an empty track or on a scripted set with specific situations, but it was around Ford’s campus where ordinary Ford-life happens. People go to lunch, cars pull in and out of their parking spaces, deliveries are made and pedestrians walk to their next meeting.
During the ride, the vehicle pulled off, indicated, waited patiently for pedestrians to cross the road, made a right turn after taking into account other vehicles, negotiated a windy road while maintaining its position in the lane, made a right turn avoiding on-coming traffic and stuck to the speed limit – accelerating where it was permitted and reduced speed where the limit was restricted. During the drive, the safety driver and engineer inside the vehicle did not touch a single button from the time we started to the time we ended.
In an era in the future where all vehicles are autonomous automation is simple as each vehicle becomes a node on the network which is controlled. However until such time where the roads are a mix of autonomous and human-drivers the vehicle the task of getting autonomous driving perfect is not an enviable task.
If this is the level of the test vehicle today, I walked away feeling confident that Ford will make its 2021 target.
p.s The future was so close but I couldn’t snap a pic of it as Ford uses special camouflage paint-wrap to ensure that cameras stay out of focus when trying to snap their new vehicles…and it works: