After much debate and media coverage, it's crunch time. Autonomous vehicles are here – sort of – so we headed to Detroit, Michigan in the United States to experience the future. Ford, strategically repositioning itself for a radically different next 100 years, is one of the companies leading the charge...
The word "autonomous" has been a hot topic for while now, but we could all be forgiven for behaving like a snowman thinking of sunburn... ‘It’s too far away to affect me and I won’t be around long enough to experience it’, would be the general cry. The reality, however, is that the technology is pretty much ready – through features such as lane-keeping assistance and automated parking, we've already experienced "partial" autonomous driving or, to be more accurate, "assisted" driving to various degrees. And judging by our recent visit to Ford’s epicentre of the autonomous revolution, in Dearborn, near Detroit, Michigan in the United States of America, the revolution is hitting the home straight.
But firstly... why Ford? While the likes of Uber, Google and Tesla are grabbing the autonomous headlines, it is clear that the Blue Oval, more than a 100 years old as it may be, is not sitting back and letting the young upstarts dictate the future. Ford regards itself as the "original start-up", and believes that bringing life-changing technologies to people is fundamental to its purpose. To do this, it is transitioning from being a car manufacturer to an auto and mobility company, and is collaborating with more than 60 universities globally as well as strategic research alliance partners such as Standford, MIT and Aachen University to find solutions to tomorrow's problems. No surprise then, that it has been developing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years...
A Hands-off experience
Usually invites for vehicle launches are a simple affair. Fly in, drive the car, talk to the important people developing the car and fly out. This was different. We wouldn’t be the ones driving. This time around we were being driven... and not by a human, either.
Our test "drive" route twisted its way through the company's Dearborn facility and represented a real urban road. It featured plenty of other traffic as well as traffic lights, road signs and active pedestrian crossings. We climbed into the back of the Ford Fusion and in the front were two Ford engineers. The first we’ll call Justin (Just In Case) and his job was to take over control in the event of an emergency, while the second engineer had a laptop connected to the car showing us how the vehicle sees the surrounding environment. The Ford Fusion has multiple sensors and it continually scans the environment around it (see image below).
“Sit back, put your seatbelts on and enjoy the ride,” said the burly Ford representative in that firm, yet overly polite manner that Americans are famous for. This Ford Fusion we’re sitting in is not like the ones we get back home. While it has a steering wheel and pedals, they’re redundant and only for use in emergencies. The vehicle glides off on its own accord and joins the road as the two Ford engineers sitting in the front gleefully point out that they’re not doing anything and wave their hands in the air. This is it. Autonomous driving. We’ve arrived.
The first test was a four-way stop. The vehicle anticipated the stop and coasted to a halt. A human-operated vehicle was also at the stop and while it was not his turn to proceed, decided to cut into the path of the autonomous car. Our Ford became aware of the other vehicle the moment it had started moving and immediately slowed down to prevent an accident. Due to the overly cautious nature of the autonomous cars, we reckon that humans are going to take advantage of this safe approach.
The second challenge was a pedestrian crossing where Ford had conveniently placed people ready to cross the road. Forget detecting pedestrians for a second, the autonomous vehicle was able to read the pedestrian crossing sign and had already prepared itself for objects in its path. It waited for the pedestrians to clear and started moving again. A late pedestrian tried to make a last-minute dash across and the car came to an immediate halt. While the pedestrian was completely in the wrong, the car allowed this.
How Does It Work?
The car we experienced in America was the Ford Fusion hybrid. It looks just like any other Fusion on the road in terms of design, but you can’t miss the array of sensors, cameras and aerials mounted on the roof. Ford summed it up beautifully by comparing an autonomous vehicle to a human.
What about safety?
There was much alarm recently when a driver was killed after his Tesla vehicle failed to recognise a truck and collided with it. To be clear, however, Tesla does not market its products as fully autonomous vehicles and the driver involved was not paying attention at all, choosing instead to watch a movie, it was reported. Of course, it is to be expected that any safety related incident will make the headlines, but the companies pursuing autonomous technology regard safety as one of its greatest benefits and, perhaps equally importantly, those in charge of making the laws governing motoring and transport are in agreement. The statistics just don't lie...
Tesla was quick to point out that its systems are not meant to replace the driver’s inputs, but rather aid him/her. In fact, most vehicles which have a fair degree of self-driving ability require the driver to keep his/her hands on the wheel at all times. If you take your hands off the steering wheel for too long in the new Mercedes-Benz E-Class, it will eventually put on its hazard lights and come to a complete stop in the emergency lane. It is this misconception of autonomous driving as a blanket term that car makers will have to address effectively very quickly. Simply put, there are various levels of "autonomous", with fully hands-free driving only truly on offer on so-called level 4 or 5 vehicles. At present, the semi-autonomous cars on sale or under development offer at best level 2 capabilities...
Ford & Autonomous Vehicles: Already a decade-long project
At this point, most of you are probably thinking ‘this technology is still unproven, the take-up will be negligible and we’re decades from this being a reality.’ You’d be wrong. Ride-share company Uber has a fleet of similar Ford Fusion autonomous vehicles and they’re already active on the roads of Pittsburgh. Admittedly these vehicles come with a driver just in case, but the technology is there. It's the result of some clever thinking by the companies involved. They’re well aware that these vehicles need to tally up miles in real-world testing, so why not make some money off them in the meantime? Summon an autonomous UberX and you’re likely to meet the driver behind the wheel and an engineer with a laptop in the passenger seat. It’s a win-win for everyone.
Ford itself is working on mass-producing a fleet of fully autonomous vehicles exclusively for ride-sharing duty by 2021. To do this the company has shifted its mindset from a car company to a mobility solutions provider. In fact, according to Mark Fields, President and CEO of Ford, the autonomous revolution is likely to be every bit as important to the Blue Oval's next 100 years, as its move to develop production lines for the Model T was in the previous century... Cars are still going to be the core business for Ford, but the expansion into bicycles, ride-sharing and buses definitely shows intent.
Implications for South Africa (and petrolheads)
As we said right at the start of this article, most owners of relatively new cars in South Africa have already experienced assisted driving technologies to some extent. New products from Volvo and Mercedes-Benz are already on the market with a certain degree of "hands-off" capability, but the likelihood of fully autonomous cars on sale to South Africans in the next decade appears slim. However, South Africa does not exist in a vacuum, and when the technology has matured enough to be fully compatible with our road infrastructure and conditions, we expect some local testing to start happening sooner rather than later.
What you are likely to see in the short term is an aggressive roll-out of semi-autonomous technologies, and the arrival of level-4 capable vehicles (partly autonomous) in the 2020s. These vehicles will allow you to take your hands off when the driving is taxing and boring (traffic) and concentrate on other stuff, such as checking your e-mails or watching a movie. But... they'll also still allow you to get your driving kicks when the opportunity presents itself. So, driving enthusiasts, don't fret... autonomy is not necessarily the enemy.
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