Hoping to get the autonomous market down to a ‘T’

Ford ‘invented’ the mass market car in the shape of its 1908 Model T and now its hoping to lead the charge into creating volume selling autonomous vehicles.

That’s why it became the first carmaker to test autonomous vehicles at Mcity – the 32-acre simulated urban environment at the University of Michigan.

Mcity provides ‘real-world’ road scenarios, such as running a red light, that cannot be legally replicated on public roads. There are street lights, pedestrian crossings, lane markings, bike lanes, trees, pavements, signs, traffic lights and even construction barriers.

Ford has been testing autonomous vehicles for more than a decade, starting with research with the Ford Mondeo by the UK Autodrive Consortium at MIRA test facility in Nuneaton, UK and now with its Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Research Vehicle tested at the university’s Mobility Transformation Center since 2013.

The Ford test vehicles merge today’s driver-assist technologies with LiDAR sensors to generate a real-time 3D map of the surrounding environment.

It’s clear that the Mcity move is a way to fast-track autonomous Fords into the market place within the next five years, according to Thomas Lukaszewicz, Ford Automated Driving manager at its European Research and Advanced Engineering Centre.

However, there was a very clear caveat to his near-future prediction. Speaking exclusively to TU-Automotive, Lukaszewicz said: “We believe autonomous driving will be possible in the near future but only where you have a more controlled environment. This is on road infrastructure where you have high definition map data available, as a prerequisite, and, this being the case, we believe autonomous driving will be possible within the next five years.

“In the first instance, these controlled environments are most likely to be on highways like the German autobahn, for example. This means limited access to the road so you don’t have children playing about on the side of the road which would be difficult to handle in the early stages of autonomous driving.”

Some might believe that the word autonomous flies in the face of the car’s traditional perceived role as an icon of personal freedom but Lukaszewicz believes taking away some control from the driver can still be part of a liberating experience in the near future.

He explained: “If you look at Traffic Jam Assist as an example, we are not planning to take the driver completely out of the role as a driver, such as getting rid of the pedals and the steering wheel – that is not our goal. Rather, in boring and stressful situations, such as traffic jams, we can support the driver with an autonomous feature.

 “When you start your journey you have to be able to drive to the controlled environment, following the driving rules, hold the proper licences, and only switch to the autonomous mode when you are in the controlled environment.”

And, far from autonomous vehicles only getting the younger Millennials and Generation ‘Y’ customers excited, Lukaszewicz believes the older Baby Boomers are finding autonomous features among the biggest attractions in cars today.

He said: “Part of our normal development process is to gain good customer feedback for our new features and technologies using customer clinics. These include a complete range of drivers from the young to the older generation and I wouldn’t exclude these as a customer base.

“We are receiving a lot of positive feedback on Active City Stop, pedestrian detection and so on from the older generation because the exhausting environment of traffic jams affects them a lot more than the younger driver.” 

Lukaszewicz doesn’t see the volume of cars sold on the near horizon being much affected by the advance of autonomous features in mass-market vehicles.

He said: “In the near future I don’t see the technology having a very great effect on the numbers of cars built and sold. We have seen research covering global trends showing that fleet use is likely to increase over the next decade so I don’t see the technology having either a positive or negative effect on vehicle volumes.”

However, the biggest asset the autonomous vehicle will have according to Lukaszewicz is the added value it brings both owners and society in general with increased efficiencies.

He explained: “For example, the vehicle-to-vehicle (V2V) technology we are working on which is a potential enabler for increased autonomous driving. This would increase the efficiency of movement of traffic and allow fuel saving driving such as platooning where V2V is an essential technology. With the ever increasing need in the transportation of goods it’s easy to imagine a road train of 10 or 11 trucks making better use of the current infrastructure.”

While it’s impossible to see too far into the autonomous vehicle’s future, it’s clear that the Blue Oval carmaker is aiming to build on more than a century as one of the industry’s brand leaders. 


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