After GM took the opportunity to expand its self-driving test fleet following its home state of Michigan opening its roads to the technology, now Ford announces an expansion of its own test fleet with some cars going to Michigan and to its current fleet in California.
The automaker also released the first images of its next generation autonomous test vehicle using the Ford Fusion Hybrid. It features a new and significantly better-integrated sensor suite.
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If automakers want to sell self-driving vehicles, they need to work on sensor integration and can’t have vehicles looking like they bolted a bunch of cameras and LiDAR sensors on top of a ski rack, which is how most test vehicles look like these days.
Of course, some of them, like Google, aim at using those vehicles for ride-sharing services, which makes the appearance a little less important since the end-user never ends up buying the vehicle.
Tesla went the other way and worked hard on integrating over 20 sensors in its cars without anyone seeing the difference unless you know exactly where to look. Here’s the first Model X produced by Tesla last year and a new one with the second generation hardware (via Sterling Anderson, Director of Autopilot Programs at Tesla, on Twitter):
On the other hand, even though Ford had far from the worst sensor integration, the LiDAR pucks were still weirdly sticking out of the top of its first generation self-driving car (left) – though it’s still a lot better than the Ford Fusion Uber has been using for its own program (right):
The next generation today is a significant improvement with the roof racks a lot closer to the roof and the LiDAR pucks moved to the side of the vehicle.
Here’s a gallery that Ford released today:
The company commented on the improvement to the system:
“The new vehicle uses the current Ford autonomous vehicle platform, but ups the processing power with new computer hardware. Electrical controls are closer to production-ready, and adjustments to the sensor technology, including placement, allow the car to better see what’s around it. New LiDAR sensors have a sleeker design and more targeted field of vision, which enables the car to now use just two sensors rather than four, while still getting just as much data.”
The last generation used 4 LiDAR sensors against 2 for the new vehicles, but they have 3 times the range (600 ft vs 200 ft). They also use 3 cameras and 3 radar antennas.
The problem though seems to be the computer power to process the data from those sensors. It currently needs its own power generator and as you can see from the pictures above and video below, it takes almost all the space in the trunk.
Ford will show the vehicle at CES and the North American International Auto Show in January. It plans to bring to market a version for ride-sharing services in 2021.