MOTOR Magazine

A MOTOR Magazine Newsletter
October 4, 2016

Contributed by Bob Chabot
Ford Fast-Tracks Autonomous Driving

Ford plans to turn itself from an automaker into a mobility company

Ford Motor Co. announced it will have a high-volume, SAE-rated Level 4 "highly autonomous" vehicle in commercial production by 2021, with sales to individual consumers shortly thereafter. "This new autonomous vehicle will not be equipped with a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal," noted Mark Fields, Ford president and CEO.

"Autonomous vehicles by 2021 is part of Ford's Smart Mobility Plan to be a leader in autonomous vehicles, as well as in connectivity, mobility, the customer experience, and data and analytics. This new autonomous vehicle will not be equipped with a steering wheel, accelerator pedal or brake pedal."

The Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) J3016 standard provides a common taxonomy and definitions of six levels of increasing driving automation — spanning from no automation to full automation. A key distinction is between level 2, where the human driver performs part of the dynamic driving task, and level 3, where the automated driving system performs the entire dynamic driving task. Ford's says its vehicle will be SAE level 4-capable. (Image — SAE International)

Ford Takes Different Approach to Autonomy Than Other Automakers
"This plan is a transformational moment in our industry and it is also a transformational moment for our company," emphasized Fields. Ford's approach to autonomous driving breaks from the strategy that Mercedes-Benz, BMW, Tesla and other manufacturers are following — a more gradual introduction of self-driving functionalities into traditional vehicles.

"Instead, Ford's approach is to move directly to autonomous vehicles once the technology is perfected," said Raj Nair, Ford CTO and executive vice president for Global Products. "While Ford will continue developing systems that assist the driver (e.g. automatic emergency braking or lane departure warning), semi-autonomous systems that can operate the automobile but then cede control back to the driver when an obstacle is encountered are actually dangerous in Ford's view. Figuring out how to make sure drivers stay engaged and ready to take over if and when necessary is a minefield that might never be fully resolved."

"We believe that to achieve full autonomy, we have to take a completely different and more direct path," Nair continued. "So, Ford decided to remove the driver altogether. We've abandoned the stepping-stone approach of gradually adding in driver-assist technologies and decided we were going to take the full leap into autonomy."

Focused Research and Development
Ford has been developing and testing autonomous vehicles for more than 10 years," added Nair. "The company has a strategic advantage because of its ability to combine the software and sensing technology with the sophisticated engineering necessary to manufacture high-quality vehicles. That is what it takes to make autonomous vehicles a reality for millions of people around the world."

To achieve this, the company is doubling its current Silicon Valley R&D team of 130 researchers, engineers and scientists. It is also expanding its Research and Innovation Center campus in Palo Alto CA, by adding two new buildings and 150,000 square feet of work and lab space adjacent to the current facility. The expansion is scheduled to be completed by mid-2017.

"Our presence in Silicon Valley, as one of the largest automotive manufacturer research centers in the region, has been integral to accelerating our learning and deliverables driving Ford Smart Mobility," shared Ken Washington, Ford vice president for Research and Advanced Engineering. "Today, we are actively working with more than 40 startups, and have developed a strong collaboration with many incubators, allowing us to accelerate development of key technologies and services."

"Ford was the first automaker to begin testing its vehicles at Mcity, the University of Michigan's simulated urban environment; the first automaker to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in the snow; and the first automaker to test its autonomous research vehicles at night, in complete darkness," Fields added. "In addition to our Research and Innovation Center expansion, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet this year to 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans, and then triple that number again the following year."

Ford CEO Mark Fields says the automaker will be mass-producing fully autonomous vehicles within five years. Watch the video for more details. (Video — Ford Motor Co.)

Key Acquisitions, Collaborations and Licenses Spur Development
Of note, to deliver its Level 4 highly autonomous vehicle by 2021, Ford has made four key investments to propel its strong research in advanced algorithms, 3D mapping, LiDAR, and radar and camera sensors. Here's a brief description of what each brings to Ford's plan.

Velodyne LiDAR — Ford's $75 million investment in Velodyne, a Silicon Valley-based leader in light detection and ranging (LiDAR) sensors, is aimed at quickly mass-producing a more affordable automotive LiDAR sensor. "LiDAR continues to prove itself as the critical sensor for safe autonomous vehicle operation," said David Hall, founder and CEO, Velodyne LiDAR. "We are determined to help improve the goal of safety for automotive vehicles as soon as possible, as well as empower the efficiency autonomous systems offer. This investment will accelerate the cost reduction and scaling of Velodyne's industry-leading LiDAR sensors, making them widely accessible and enabling mass deployment of fully autonomous vehicles."

"From the very beginning of our autonomous vehicle program, we saw LiDAR as a key enabler due to its sensing capabilities and how it complements radar and cameras," noted Nair. "Ford was among the first to use LiDAR for both high-resolution mapping and autonomous driving beginning more than 10 years ago. This investment is a clear sign of our commitment to making autonomous vehicles available for consumers around the world."

SAIPS Algorithmic Solutions — "SAIPS is a computer vision and machine learning Israel-based company," explained CEO Udy Danino. "Our core expertise is design, development and implementation of algorithmic engines that are based on Deep Neural Networks ('Deep Learning'). The SAIPS portfolio consists of several algorithmic suites that provide state of the art solutions for the hottest computer vision challenges in the areas of detection, tracking, image enhancement, registration, segmentation, pattern recognition, positioning, 3D, prediction, video intelligence and more."

"Ford acquired SAIPS outright specifically because of its expertise on image and video processing algorithms as well as classifying and processing of input signals," Fields explained. "Examples include detection of anomalies, persistent tracking of objects detected by sensors, and much more. These are all key ingredients in the special sauce that makes up autonomous vehicle technology. The expertise should help with on-board interpretation of data captured by sensors on Ford's self-driving cars."

Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC — Nirenberg Neuroscience LLC is an artificial intelligence company with proprietary software for developing powerful machine vision technology, with an emphasis on autonomous mobility, navigation, and object/face recognition in all fields. Its founder, neuroscientist Dr. Sheila Nirenberg, cracked the neural code the human eye uses to transmit visual information to the brain.

"Ford has secured an exclusive licensing agreement with Nirenberg Neuroscience that will help bring instantaneous humanlike intelligence to the machine learning modules in its autonomous vehicle's virtual driver system to allow it to instantly adapt to its surrounding environment," advised Nair.

Civil Maps — Civil Maps is a geospatial technology company based in Berkeley, CA that provides artificial intelligence-based mapping solutions to enable computers to interpret and act quickly within the physical world. The company's self-learning cognitive perception systems replicate human context to enable machines to perceive, orient and respond.

"Civil Maps has pioneered an innovative 3D mapping technique that is scalable and more efficient than existing processes," Fields stated. "Ford's investment will help it develop and utilize extremely accurate, high-resolution 3D mapping capabilities essential to enabling fully autonomous vehicles to traverse any road safely and comfortably without any human intervention."

"Ford recognizes that as an automaker, it must continually change," Fields concluded. "The next decade will be defined by automation of the automobile. We see autonomous vehicles as having as significant an impact on society as Ford's moving assembly line did 100 years ago. We're dedicated to putting autonomous vehicles on the road that can improve safety and solve social and environmental challenges for millions of people — not just those who can afford luxury vehicles."

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