Car companies are driving a fine line between “automated” and “driverless” driving. What’s the difference? Both are meant to give cars more control over themselves. Both are meant to make life easier for those lounging in the bucket seats. But “automated” driving comes with a big caveat: no matter how intelligent a vehicle may get, the ultimate responsibility for whatever happens still belongs to the human occupant.
That distinction is one that sidesteps complicated questions about insurance and state and federal legislation that might be needed to allow driverless cars to roam the roads. It’s also one that was reiterated at a press conference held by Ford in Dearborn, Mich., Thursday, in advance of the North American International Auto Show next month. As he revealed Ford’s third generation automated research vehicle, a Ford executive paused for a preamble: “Before we go any further, let’s define what we mean by automated,” said Vice President Raj Nair. “What we do not mean is a driverless car … this Fusion hybrid is capable of automated operation under the supervision of a human driver.”
In the near term, what Ford means by “automated operation” is the sum total of various features that many companies are rolling out piece by piece on their cars; they add up to an essentially driverless car, as you can see in the no-hands video of the new research vehicle above, but they’re broken out as high-tech helping hands for the driver. They’re what Ford’s director of research and innovation, Randy Visintainer, calls the “building blocks” of a fully automated car. Right now, the most common examples out there are features like lane-keeping systems; if a driver falls asleep, say, the car will take temporary control of the steering and, using cameras that read lane markings, keep the car where it belongs while bleeping at the driver. Analysts estimate that nearly 40% of cars will have some version of “lane assistance” by 2022.
In the next five years, Visintainer says Ford will roll out two big innovations: fully automated parking, meaning you can stand outside the car, press a button and watch the car park itself in a parallel or perpendicular spot; and traffic jam assist, shorthand for a car’s capability to fully drive itself in slow, stop-and-go situations on the highway. Other companies, like Mercedes, already have traffic-jam features on the market. Ford’s challenge is to try to keep up with the luxury companies while doing everything on a (relatively) shoestring budget.
The research vehicle presented at the conference is essentially a “blank slate” that Ford will use to test algorithms, Visintainer says, working out kinks for the features they plan to introduce on coming models. That means, for example, finding out how to give the car the capability of staying in its lane in weather conditions that reduce visibility, while using the fewest sensors possible, because sensors can get expensive. The rolling Fusion test lab is also capped with LIDAR—light detection and ranging—sensors that generate 3D maps, which Ford says they hope to one day use as constantly updated databases for their “automated” cars. You can see what these sensors see in the video below, showing data collected by one of the new research vehicles in Ann Arbor: