Ford’s self-driving car can operate in complete darkness

Ford driverless car

When it comes to self-driving cars, don’t sleep on Ford. The automaker just overcame a major hurdle for driverless cars.

Ford said Monday that it has successfully tested one of its self-driving Ford Fusions in complete darkness — no headlights and no street lighting whatsoever. It was so dark you actually needed night vision goggles to even see the cars.

“The purpose for doing the testing at night was to test a situation where there might be poor illumination,” Randy Visintainer, Ford’s director of autonomous vehicles, told Tech Insider. “We took it to the extreme and went into complete darkness.”

The test took place on a closed course that was previously mapped out so the car could localise itself in the dark. It travelled up to 60 miles per hour and successfully navigated curvy roads, Visintainer said. The testing took place in March. 

So why is it such a big deal? For one, it was successful in conditions no human could ever handle without the assistance of night vision technology. Considering driverless cars don’t have a shot at hitting the roads until they can drive better than humans, the feat shows Ford is well on its way to Level 4 autonomy where no driver supervision is necessary.

But it also highlights the sophisticated nature of its new LiDAR technology. Ford is now using a LiDAR device from Velodyne called the Ultra Puck that’s much smaller than previous version that were used on its autonomous fleet. 

The device helps extend the car’s sensing range by 200 meters from the last generation. It also has improved precision, allowing it to better create maps and models for testing. 

LiDAR essentially sends out pulses of laser light to construct a 3D image of a vehicle’s environment. The technology works with cameras and mapped routes so the car can figure out where it is and navigate successfully.

Visintainer said that the Ultra Puck “puts the beams where we want them,” allowing the car to navigate easier than before. When in complete darkness, the car can’t rely on its light-dependent cameras, making sophisticated LiDAR technology that much more important.

Ford is tripling its autonomous fleet so there are 30 Fusion autonomous vehicles driving in California, Arizona, and in Michigan. That means Ford now has the largest autonomous vehicle fleet of any automaker.

“We totally expected we’d be able to do this,” Visintainer said. “We’ve been using LiDAR on autonomous research vehicles since the DARPA challenge days back in 2005. Lidars have gotten smaller, an our software behind LiDAR has gotten better.”

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