Weekly Brief: Ford’s Hands-Free Assistance a Litmus Test for Autonomous

Ford has announced its long-anticipated hands-free technology will debut on the 2021 all-electric Mustang Mach-E, which hits dealership floors in late 2020.

Unfortunately, Active Drive Assist won’t be released until late 2021 as an over-the-air update and, even then, it will only be available to those drivers who have purchased an additional hardware package at the point of sale. The good news is that, when it arrives, the feature will allow for hands-free driving on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in all 50 US states and in Canada.

It claims to be able to center the vehicle in its lane and speeds up or slows down according to the surrounding traffic. To ensure that drivers stay engaged, an advanced infrared driver-facing camera in the dashboard tracks head position and driver eye gaze even through sunglasses. The system notifies drivers with visual prompts if they need to return their attention to the road or resume control of the vehicle. If they fail to respond, the car slows down and, ultimately, comes to a stop.

For a self-driving industry that has watched one major carmaker after another renege on earlier promises and retrench in the face of financial uncertainty, it’s nice to see Ford pushing forward with some autonomous features while upping the bar on safety. Tesla’s Autopilot feature, which functions similarly to Active Drive Assist, has led to a number of deadly accidents, largely because the illusion of a fully self-driving experience has lured drivers away from the road into a la la land of tweets, videos, TikToks and power naps.

Tesla originally didn’t require anything of drivers when Autopilot was engaged. It merely told them that they needed to continue paying attention to the road. That was like sticking kids in a candy shop and telling them to read a book. Tesla has since updated Autopilot to deactivate if drivers repeatedly remove their hands from the steering wheel. Ford’s infrared camera to track driver engagement takes it a step further.

It will be interesting to see how consumers respond and if they elect to purchase the special hardware package that will enable Active Drive Assist when it becomes available. Given the uncertainty and financial hardship of the pandemic, one might expect for a low level of engagement, especially since the feature won’t be available for a year – and that’s if Ford holds true to its promise, which is by no means a given. Ford and its competitors will no doubt be watching carefully as they take stock of their self-driving car investments.

As this was being announced, BMW was letting the world know that it was laying off 6,000 workers and scrapping its big self-driving car partnership with Mercedes-Benz, which wasn’t even a year old. The carmakers had hoped that combining forces in pursuit of autonomous tech would create synergies and unlock whole new possibilities. Coronovirus wiped that out in a matter of months. Both say they could resume their partnership after the current crisis is over.

Are self-driving cars and semi-autonomous features worth the investment right now? How Ford’s Active Drive Assist feature fares this autumn will be a bellwether.

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