Dateline 2021: 4 year countdown to Ford launching driverless vehicle

No steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal... robot motoring is getting closer as technology makes giant strides

A fully autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan

There must have been occasions in recent weeks when Ryanair boss Michael O’Leary wished he could trade in the flying industry for the motor trade... and done away with pilots altogether.

The pilot-less plane may be some way off, but autonomous vehicles will soon be a reality — and Ford has thrown down the gauntlet to the industry by announcing it will have a fully autonomous vehicle in commercial operation by 2021.

The picture above, showing a driverless Ford Fusion Hybrid prototype on the streets of Dearborn, Michigan, would certainly have raised an eyebrow of Detroit’s most famous son, company founder, Henry.

To achieve this four-year target, the company has partnered or invested with four different technology companies, along with doubling its Silicon Valley presence.

“The vehicle will operate without a steering wheel, gas pedal or brake pedal within geo-fenced areas as part of a ride-sharing or ride-hailing experience,” said a Ford spokesperson.

To underline the continual progress towards this end, Ford last month revealed it is testing a method for self-driving vehicles to communicate their intent to pedestrians, human drivers and cyclists, in an effort to create a standard visual language people can easily understand.

In place of current cues such as hand waves or head nods between human drivers and pedestrians, driverless vehicles will have built-in light signals to indicate to people in the vicinity when it is doing one of the following.

  • Yield: Two white lights move side to side, across a bar at the top of the windscreen
  • Active autonomous driving mode: Solid white light.
  • Start to go: Rapidly blinking white light.

The system was tested on the streets of Virginia, USA, with researchers capturing video and logs of pedestrians’ reactions.

Meanwhile, regulators in Germany have started drawing up plans on how driverless vehicles should be programmed to deal with a dilemma, such as choosing between hitting a cyclist or accelerating beyond legal speeds to avoid an accident.

This current ethical grey area was raised by William Clay Ford Jr, Executive Chairman of Ford Motor Company, during his visit to Cork in April this year.

The German transport ministry guidelines provide an early roadmap on the issue and state that protecting people rather than property or animals will be the priority for the operation of driverless cars.

When an accident is unavoidable, the guidelines suggest the software must choose whichever action will hurt people the least, even if that means destroying property or hitting animals in the road. The software may not decide on its course of action based on the age, sex or physical condition of any people involved.

An indication that this remains a fledgling technology came with a recent study by the University of Washington, which claimed that simple stickers placed over road signs could confuse a robot car into jumping a ‘stop’ sign or braking suddenly without reason.

The team said they hoped their research would help autonomous car makers to build better defence systems into their vehicles.

However, motor manufacturers remain confident any such issues will be eradicated long before driverless cars hit the streets.

As one example of the type of futuristic ideas currently being discussed, A Massachusetts Institute of Technology off-shoot company called iSee is aiming to move a step forward from normal artificial intelligence and develop algorithms that try to match the way humans understand and learn about the physical world, including interacting with other people.

The approach could lead to self-driving vehicles that are much better equipped to deal with unfamiliar scenes and complex interactions on the road.

“The human mind is super-sensitive to physics and social cues,” says Yibiao Zhao, co-founder of iSee. “Current AI is relatively limited in those domains, and we think that is actually the missing piece in driving.”

The future of the motor industry will be discussed at Autotech — the world’s leading conference on motor technology — in Lisbon, Portugal, next month.

The event, attended by leading companies, engineers, developers, experts and hobbyists, will focus on autonomous vehicles, connected cars and the internet of things.

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