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Arizona tests show Ford's autonomous vehicles can operate in complete darkness

Ford has demonstrated the capability of its Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicles to perform beyond the limits of human drivers, by driving in pitch-black darkness on a winding track using only lidar and 3D maps.

Driving in pitch black at Ford’s Arizona Proving Ground (APG) marked the next step on the company’s journey to delivering fully autonomous vehicles to customers around the globe. The company sees this as an important development, in that it shows that even without cameras, which rely on light, the lidar system, working in conjunction with the car’s virtual driver software, is robust enough to steer flawlessly around winding roads. Although it is ideal to have all three modes of sensors, radar, cameras and lidar, working simultaneously, the latter can function independently on roads without lights. Night-time driving is not easy for humans, as has been shown by National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA) data, which found the passenger vehicle occupant fatality rate during dark hours to be about three times higher than the daytime rate.

To navigate in the dark, Ford’s self-driving cars use high-resolution 3D maps, complete with information about the road, road markings, geography, topography and landmarks, such as signs, buildings and trees. The vehicle uses lidar to pinpoint itself on the map in real time, with the Velodyne sensors shooting out 2.8 million laser pulses a second to precisely scan the surrounding environment. Additional data from radar gets fused with the lidar scans to complete the full sensing capability of the autonomous vehicle. For the Arizona tests, Ford engineers monitored the Fusion from inside and outside the vehicle using night-vision goggles, which allowed them to see the lidar doing its job, in the form of a grid of infrared laser beams projected around the vehicle as it drove past.

“Thanks to lidar, the test cars aren’t reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt,” said Jim McBride, Ford’s technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “In fact, lidar allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day.”

Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist and engineer who took part in the testing, commented, “Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness. As I rode in the back seat, I was following the car’s progression in real time using computer monitoring. Sure enough, it stayed precisely on track along those winding roads.”

To see a video of Ford testing an autonomous car in complete darkness click here.

The latest research from around the world will be presented at the Autonomous Vehicle Test & Development Symposium. Click here to register.

April 12, 2016

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