Tested: Ford Focus 2018 where robot takes the wheel

If there’s a mission statement from one of the most successful mass market carmakers in history, it’s that Ford will bring new innovation and technologies to the masses.

It’s new Ford Focus is already heralded by company executives as the most important new model it has ever launched based on the package of consumer focused technologies that are leading the industry’s forward thinking right now. High, if not highest, on that list is safety and with the new Focus a host of driver assistance technologies are listed as standard equipment.

ADAS features include:

  • Adaptive cruise control now boasting with stop-and-go, speed sign recognition and lane-centering;
  • Adaptive front lighting system with camera-based predictive curve light and sign-based light that pre-adjust headlamp patterns for improved visibility by monitoring bends in the road and road signs;
  • Active Park Assist 2 that now also operates gear selection, acceleration and braking to enable fully-automated maneuvers at the push of a button
  • Heads-up display allowing eye focus on the road while receiving dashboard information.

Yet, the big story is the segment first technology ‘autonomous’ technology of ‘Evasive Steering Assist’. This Ford system claims to help drivers steer around stopped or slower vehicles to help avoid collisions using the radar and camera array of its Ford Co-Pilot360 pack.

What is intriguing from an ethical road safety point of view, is that steering has a level of automation in an emergency situation and will, when ‘demanded’ by the driver momentarily take off the steering function enough to avoid an obstacle in the road. Imagine the situation – you’re following a car ahead that suddenly pulls out of your lane only to reveal a broken down car in front that you could not have seen until the other vehicle had moved away. Naturally, you should have been traveling along leaving sufficient braking distance to cope with this situation. Yet, we are all not perfect and, in any case, perhaps you were entering the highway from a slip road, observing the traffic behind for a gap and fully intended to immediately overtake the car that was in front of you to cross into an outside lane and were accelerating hard?

Suddenly, things have changed and immediate action is required. Here’s where the technology kicks in, responding to your initial input on the steering and amplifying it enough to avoid the stricken car stopped in the lane.

Happy days, yes? Well, that depends if that maneuver doesn’t, itself, cause another accident, say, colliding with a motorcyclist that was in the process of overtaking in another lane. Of course, the car’s Co-Pilot360 system may also have an input in this scenario but at what point would the car be able to distinguish between the possible collision with a moving motorcycle or the certain collision with a stationary obstacle?

So this, on the face of it, could pose a legal problem for a carmaker whose technology where it not for the fact the technology does not make the decision to swerve, Thomas Lukaszewicz, Ford Europe’s manager of autonomous driving, told TU-Automotive during the global press launch of the Focus outside Nice in southern France.

He said: “Evasive steer assist is a system where, if the driver approaches a critical situation for example a stationary vehicle or obstacle in front, then either the autonomous emergency braking system (AEB) starts with warning, braking, etc, or when the driver decides he wants to avoid the collision by applying a steering evasive maneuver. When the driver triggers this maneuver, most drivers are less experienced with high dynamic maneuvers and for them we are supporting the driver [with extra assistance]. The important aspect is that the driver triggers this maneuver. That driver makes the decision.”

Lukaszewicz pointed also to the Co-Pilot360 capabilities but warned the technology could never be fool-proof. “We have front-looking radars and cameras and we have side-looking radars behind the rear bumper but, of course, they have limitations but we are definitely have to have the driver taking responsibility and makes the decision whether to go left or right of the vehicle. We support him in this but, in the end, it was the driver’s decision.”

The new Focus also boasts one of the most extensive suite of consumer focused connectivity to be offered on a mid-range mass market product through the latest version of it SYNC technology. That said, on the press drive every cabin carried a little warning card that some functions in the car would be automatically disabled when connected via USB with mobile devices.

This became very evident on my test drive when the passenger plugged his iPhone in for us to immediately lose the sat-nav function. So I asked Lukaszewicz when are we likely to see on-board technology that can seamlessly connect with devices with no conflicts that we see in today’s offerings. While admitting connectivity is not his specific area of expertise, he said:  “The experience should be with the CarPlay menu and there shouldn’t be any redundancies and because of that it was decided to rely on the Apple experience rather than using the Ford experience.

“For example, the app Waze is fully integrated into Ford SYNC. With the embedded modem, we have integrated fully the live traffic into the Ford system and similar apps like Waze or Spotify for music streaming are fully integrated.

“But for the Apple CarPlay we are swapping for the Apple menu structure but you can always switch between the SYNC menu structure and then back to the Apple structure. So you have both system running next to each other.”

However, he said engineers are working on ways to bring an even better connectivity experience to market. “The goal is to further integrate systems and the imbedded modem, for example, we now have capabilities connect the vehicle to wifi stations and through them we can update the SYNC system. Even the existing fleet can later be updated without having to go back to the workshop.”

— Paul Myles is a seasoned automotive journalist based in London. Follow him on Twitter @Paulmyles_

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