Ford Looks to Pack AV Sensors Into Side Mirrors

Ungainly, experimental-looking autonomous cars may become less conspicuous, and more aerodynamic, if Ford turns a recent patent application into a feature.

Ford Global Technologies filed a patent application last year for a way to put LiDAR sensors into the side mirrors. From there, the patent application shows, the sensors would scan the car’s surroundings ahead and to the side, presumably working with another LiDAR or two covering what’s behind the vehicle.

The idea seems obvious enough. LiDAR, which most autonomous vehicles use, shoots out invisible lasers and times them as they bounce back to determine the shape and distance of surrounding objects. It needs a clear view of the road so, in most, cases so far it has been mounted on the roof.

While the units have been shrinking, they still aren’t small enough to blend in like digital cameras, which are mounted in various places on automated and self-driving cars. Most LiDAR systems still use lasers that rotate back and forth in a drum, because while solid-state designs may prove smaller, less expensive and more reliable, they haven’t been widely adopted yet in cars.

The way Ford envisions it, side mirrors with LiDAR would look like those found on all modern cars, with bulky housings to cover power-mirror mechanicals and reduce drag. The LiDAR cylinders would go inside the housing, which would be transparent enough to send lasers through. The mirror and metallic coatings on the housing would protect the LiDAR from electromagnetic interference.

Whether they are necessary or not in driverless cars, side mirrors seem to be here to stay in the US, at least for now. Federal motor vehicle safety standards require automakers to include them on all commercial models. Technically, makers of driverless cars that don’t need mirrors (or brake pedals, or steering wheels) can get exemptions to the safety standards. However, federal legislation that would have set up a system to get exemptions for mass-produced AVs stalled in the last Congress.

Other parts of the world seem to be going the other way on mirrors. In Europe, Audi will offer “virtual” side mirrors on its E-tron battery-electric SUV. These will be rear-facing cameras in the same position as side mirrors, which will feed real-time video to 7-inch OLED screens on either end of the dashboard. These components, which Audi calls the world’s first on a production vehicle, are designed to reduce drag for greater efficiency and less wind noise. They eliminate the bulky mirror enclosures that Ford would use for LiDAR.

Mirror-mounted LiDAR might not be only for fully autonomous cars. In its 2019 A8, Audi uses LiDAR along with radar to power its Audi AI Traffic Jam Pilot. That system can keep the car in its lane and following the vehicle ahead at a set distance but Traffic Jam Pilot isn’t offered in the US.

Ford Global Technologies has been busy seeking other related AV patents. Last year, it applied for a patent on an autonomous police car that could automatically detect traffic violations and pull over vehicles. It has also proposed a drone that could fly out to a driverless car and help it drive if the car’s onboard systems failed.

Stephen Lawson is a freelance writer based in San Francisco. Follow him on Twitter @sdlawsonmedia.


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