Ford is conducting autonomous vehicle tests in snow-covered environments.
While most automakers have tested autonomous vehicle technology in dry, mostly sunny climates, Ford’s initiative makes it an industry first.
“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions – for the roughly 70 per cent of US residents who live in snowy regions.”
Fully autonomous driving can’t rely on GPS, which is accurate only to several yards – not enough to localize or identify the position of the vehicle. And it’s key that an autonomous vehicle knows its precise location, not just within a city or on a road, but in its actual driving lane – a variation of a few inches makes a big difference.
LiDAR, on the other hand, is much more accurate than GPS – identifying the Fusion Hybrid’s lane location right down to the centimeter. LiDAR emits short pulses of laser light to precisely allow the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3D image of what’s around it.
In ideal weather, LiDAR is the most efficient means of gathering important information and metadata – underlying information about the data itself – from the surrounding environment, sensing nearby objects and using cues to determine the best driving path. But on snow-covered roads or in high-density traffic, LiDAR and other sensors such as cameras can’t see the road. This is also the case when the sensor lens is covered by snow, grime or debris.
Ford in collaboration with University of Michigan technologists began working towards a solution that would allow an autonomous vehicle to see on a snow-covered road.
How snow autonomy works
To navigate snowy roads, Ford autonomous vehicles are equipped with high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road and what’s above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography.
“The vehicle’s normal safety systems, like electronic stability control and traction control, which often are used on slippery winter roads, work in unison with the autonomous driving software,” said McBride. “We eventually want our autonomous vehicles to detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it’s safe to keep driving, and if so, for how long.”
In 2013, Ford launched its second-generation autonomous vehicle platform, a Fusion Hybrid sedan using more advanced LiDAR sensors. This past summer, Ford transitioned its fully autonomous vehicle development program from the research to advanced engineering phase, the second of three phases before entering production.
Earlier this month, Ford announced it is taking the next step – tripling its fully autonomous development fleet to 30 vehicles being tested on roads and test tracks in California, Arizona and Michigan.