In the past few years we’ve seen some truly amazing advancements in autonomous vehicle technology. Just a decade ago, self-driving cars were million-dollar prototypes with massive sensor arrays bolted to their roofs. They moved cautiously and slowly, and became easily confused by unexpected objects or events that were beyond the car’s programming.
Today’s autonomous cars are far more advanced. Powered by far more advanced computer systems and sensors, connected autonomous vehicle fleets such as Tesla’s customer-owned autopilot-enabled Model S electric cars, Nissan’s prototype Autonomous Drive Nissan LEAFs and Google’s autonomous ‘pod’ cars are collectively amassing millions of miles of driving experience every month, improving their subroutines and becoming better at tackling daily driving duties as a result.
But while these more advanced electric cars can handle most everyday road situations and can even handle inclement weather, snow is still seen as something of a nemesis for the autonomous car, since it covers road markings and road signs, makes it hard for the car to figure out where it is, and can cover essential vehicle sensors with a thick layer of icy sludge.
Yet yesterday, on the opening day of the 2016 North American International Auto Show (known more commonly as the Detroit Auto Show), Detroit local Ford claimed it is the first automaker in the world to develop and successfully test an autonomous drive system that can operate in snowy conditions.
Of course, Ford isn’t the first automaker to have one of its autonomous driving vehicle in snowy conditions. Given the usual winter weather in Sweden, we’d expect Volvo’s autonomous vehicles to have encountered snow before, as well as some of the 50,000+ Tesla cars now in private ownership around the world with autopilot capabilities. Nevertheless, Ford’s announcement is worthy of note, as it makes use of both high-resolution 3D mapping software and LiDAR as a way to locate the car when traditional cues such as lane markings aren’t available.
“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles of Ford’s latest research project. “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 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions.”
Thanks to the nearby Mcity — a purpose-built 32-acre test track near Ann Arbor, Michigan — Ford was able to test its winter-ready autonomous vehicle technology on a private course that perfectly mimics so many winter scenes across the U.S. With snow covering the ground, falling steadily from the sky and lane markings impossible to see, Ford’s fleet of autonomous Fusion Hybrid sedans have been put through their paces.
As Ford explains, traditional LiDAR sensors — while perfect for obtaining pinpoint vehicle location data in warmer weather, aren’t fond of snow and ice. That’s because the LiDAR sensors rely on being able to see the world around them — most noticeably the ground — to locate the car in its lane correctly. When there’s snow covering the ground and it’s no-longer possible to see those lane markings, all bets are off.
Working with the University of Michigan, Ford came up with a new solution; instead of relying just on LiDAR, it implemented a very high resolution 3D mapping system which allows cars to use their LiDAR and radar sensors to locate the car accurately in relation to other buildings and landmarks such as trees, even if the ground is thick with snow.
While Ford says the system is new to the automotive industry, we think it reminds us a little of the system being implemented by Tesla Motors in its autopilot software for the Tesla Model S and Tesla Model X, as well as the technology being developed by Nissan for its autonomous vehicle programs. In both cases, high-quality 3D maps work alongside vehicle-mounted sensors of varying types to create a virtual representation of the world around the car, allowing the car to locate itself even if road markings are not clear.
In the case of the Tesla Model S, that system is already being used to allow Tesla cars the capability to drive on roads where markings are faded or not clear — although we have yet to hear of Tesla’s autopilot software confidently driving itself on snow-covered roads.
Admittedly, Ford isn’t ready yet to claim that its autonomous drive technology will handle things when there are more than a few inches of snow on the road, but as the video above shows, the autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrids seem capable of handling a light dusting with ease.
Would you trust an autonomous car in the snow? Or would you prefer to the one making the decisions in tricky driving conditions? Leave your thoughts in the Comments below.
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