Ford tripling size of autonomous vehicle development fleet, accelerating on-road testing of sensors and software

Ford is tripling its fleet of fully autonomous Fusion Hybrid test vehicles - making it the largest in the automotive industry - and will use a new generation of cutting-edge sensor technology as the company further accelerates its autonomous vehicle development plans.

This year, Ford will add an additional 20 Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles, bringing the company's autonomous fleet to about 30 vehicles being tested on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan.

"Using the most advanced technology and expanding our test fleet are clear signs of our commitment to make autonomous vehicles available for millions of people - not just the elite," said Raj Nair, Ford executive vice president, Global Product Development and chief technical officer. "With more autonomous vehicles on the road, we are accelerating the development of software algorithms that serve to make our vehicles even smarter."

Building on more than a decade of Ford's autonomous vehicle research, this expansion is a key element of Ford Smart Mobility - the plan to take Ford to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience, data and analytics.

The newest vehicles are on Ford's third-generation autonomous vehicle development platform, built using Fusion Hybrid sedans, similar to the second-generation platform.

Ford recently announced its fully autonomous cars will take to the streets of California this year. The company already tests autonomous vehicles at its proving grounds, as well as on public roads in Michigan. Ford also was the first automaker to test a fully autonomous vehicle at Mcity - a 32-acre, full-scale simulated real-world urban environment at the University of Michigan.

Advances in sensing, software and hardware
Ford now is using Velodyne's newest LiDAR sensors - named Solid-State Hybrid (SH) Ultra PUCK Auto for its hockey puck-like size and shape - on its third-generation autonomous vehicle platform.

SH Ultra PUCK Auto sensors boast a longer range of 200 meters, making it the first auto-specific Solid-State Hybrid LiDAR sensor capable of handling different driving scenarios. The Ultra Puck will accelerate the development and validation of Ford's "virtual driver" software, which serves as the decision-making brain that directs vehicle systems.

SH Ultra PUCK Auto's more targeted field of view and lightweight, sleek design make it optimal for packaging on an autonomous vehicle. The sensor's design means Ford can reduce the amount of LiDAR sensors from four to two on the third-generation Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles, yet collect the same amount of data as before.

"Adding the latest generation of computers and sensors, including the smaller and more affordable SH Ultra PUCK Auto sensors, brings Ford ever closer to having a fully autonomous vehicle ready for production," said Jim McBride, Ford's technical leader for autonomous vehicles.

The vehicle's hardware systems, which interact continuously with the virtual driver, are equally important.

The third-generation autonomous Fusion Hybrid sedans will have redundant features and duplicate wiring for many systems, including throttle, steering and brakes. These redundancies will act as backups, if needed.

Even the sedans' hybrid-electric powertrain can be considered a redundant system because the vehicle still has a source of power if either the battery-electric motor or gasoline-powered engine shuts down.

Ford's autonomous journey
Ford has been using Velodyne LiDAR sensors for roughly a decade, dating back to the DARPA (Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency) autonomous vehicle challenges.

During that time, Velodyne CEO and founder, David Hall consulted with Ford's Jim McBride about LiDAR technology and how it could be used for 3D visualization. Within the year, Hall invented the SH LiDAR, consolidating the detector system with 64 lasers into one elegant part and rotating it for a 360 degree range of view.

Ford began using the first Velodyne LiDAR sensor, an innovation that significantly changed the autonomous vehicle landscape. LiDAR emits short pulses of laser light to precisely scan the surrounding environment millions of times per second and determine the distance to objects. This allows the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3-D image of whatever's around it.

Ford's first generation autonomous vehicle platform was built using a Ford F-250 Super Duty for participation in the DARPA challenges in 2005 and 2007. In 2013, Ford introduced its second-generation autonomous vehicle platform, using a Fusion Hybrid sedan.

Ford was one of only six teams to participate in both the DARPA Desert Classic and Urban Finals challenges, supported by four engineers who still are on the company's autonomous vehicle development team today.

"We've come a long way since DARPA," said McBride. "A decade ago, no one in the field knew what the art of the possible was. Today, we're all hustling to make the most ambitious dreams become a reality."

The first-generation autonomous vehicle platform helped Ford understand that fully autonomous driving would be technically feasible in the near future and what it would take to achieve these through ambitious research.

Fusion Hybrid sedans were chosen for the second-generation vehicles because they have the newest and most advanced electrical architecture. With the latest generation of computers and sensors - including the smaller, but more advanced Velodyne LiDAR HDL-32E sensor - Ford's autonomous vehicle platform took a step closer to production intent.

The objective of the second-generation vehicle fleet is to test many of the computing and sensor components required to achieve fully autonomous driving capability, defined by SAE International as Level 4, which does not require driver to intervene and take control of the vehicle.

Last summer, Ford transitioned from the research phase of development to the advanced engineering phase.

Meanwhile, Ford continues using and honing other sensor types, including cameras, radar and ultrasonic devices, to deliver semi-autonomous features to customers today. These include Adaptive Cruise Control, Active Park Assist, Lane Departure Warning, Lane Keeping Aid, Pedestrian Detection, Pro Trailer Backup Assist and vehicle-to-vehicle connection technology already available on millions of Ford vehicles today.

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