Ford has revealed the Automated Fusion Hybrid Research Car, the company's first autonomous vehicle capable of driving itself.
Acting as a testbed for Ford's evolving self-driving technologies - including autonomous parking and accident avoidance - the specially modified Fusion Hybrid has been created in partnership with the University of Michigan and is the culmination of more than a decade of research into automated driving.
Until now, Ford had developed its autonomous technologies - including car-to-car communication and the ability to park in a garage without the driver onboard - on a range of different vehicles; the modified Fusion (Mondeo in Europe) is the first time all of Ford's projects have been brought together on one vehicle.
"The Ford Fusion Hybrid automated vehicle represents a vital step toward our vision for the future of mobility," said executive chairman Bill Ford. "We see a future of connected cars that communicate with each other and the world around them to make driving safer, ease traffic congestion and sustain the environment."
With a look to the future, the great-grandson of company founder Henry Ford added: "By doing this, Ford is set to have an even greater impact in our next 100 years than we did in our first 100."
Ford is far from alone in its pursuit of autonomous driving. Google, Nissan, Toyota and Tesla are all working on their own technologies to make cars drive themselves in a bid to reduce both traffic jams and collisions.
The autonomous Ford has four scanning infrared light sensors - called LiDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) - which scan the road ahead 2.5 million times per second. The sensors use light in the same way a bat or dolphin uses sound waves, bouncing infrared light off everything within 61 metres (200 feet) to generate a real-time 3D map of the surrounding environment.
The sensors are able to detect stationary and moving objects, and are claimed to be so sensitive they can differentiate between a paper bag and a small animal from nearly the length of a football pitch away - the point being, the car would not attempt to avoid the bag.
Ford is working with the State Farm insurance group to determine whether autonomous car technology can help lower the rate of rear collisions; as the technology stands, Ford's goal is to develop intelligent vehicles which will make drivers smarter, rather than replace them.
But the future of autonomous driving goes much further than providing a safety net at the very last moment - such as steering around an obstacle the driver has failed to react to.
Speaking to IBTimes UK before the autonomous Fusion was announced, Professor Dr Pim van der Jagt, managing director of Ford's research centre in Aachen, Germany, said: "With the systems we have now we still need to tell the driver to pay attention - the interesting things will come when maybe you can read a newspaper or use your iPad [while driving].
But van der Jagt admits that creating a fully autonomous car isn't easy, and making such a concept reality is "very far out".
"There will always be these extremely complex conditions, such as different weather conditions, where it will be difficult to do fully autonomous. Soon you will probably see autonomous driving in traffic jams and inner city driving, but to do this 100% autonomation where there's nobody in the car and you can tell it 'go get my son from football practice' or you go to sleep in the back seat - we still see that as very far out.
Van der Jagt added: "It's even questionable if we will ever get there, but we think we can get to a condition where 90% of the time the vehicle drives itself."
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