Recently, under the cover of night, a Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle with no headlights on navigated along lonely desert roads, performing a task that would be perilous for a human driver.
Driving in pitch black at Ford Arizona Proving Ground marks the next step on the company’s journey to delivering fully autonomous vehicles to customers around the globe. It’s an important development, in that it shows that even without cameras, which rely on light, Ford’s LiDAR – working with the car’s virtual driver software – is robust enough to steer flawlessly around winding roads. While it’s ideal to have all three modes of sensors – radar, cameras and LiDAR – the latter can function independently on roads without stoplights.
National Highway Traffic Safety Administration data has found the passenger vehicle occupant fatality rate during dark hours to be about three times higher than the daytime rate.
“Thanks to LiDAR, the test cars aren’t reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt,” says Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “In fact, LiDAR allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day.”
To navigate in the dark, Ford self-driving cars use high-resolution 3D maps – complete with information about the road, road markings, geography, topography and landmarks like signs, buildings and trees. The vehicle uses LiDAR pulses to pinpoint itself on the map in real time. Additional data from radar gets fused with that of LiDAR to complete the full sensing capability of the autonomous vehicle.
For the desert test, Ford engineers, sporting night-vision goggles, monitored the Fusion from inside and outside the vehicle. Night vision allowed them to see the LiDAR doing its job in the form of a grid of infrared laser beams projected around the vehicle as it drove past. LiDAR sensors shoot out 2.8 million laser pulses a second to precisely scan the surrounding environment.
“Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness,” describes Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist and engineer. “As I rode in the back seat, I was following the car’s progression in real time using computer monitoring. Sure enough, it stayed precisely on track along those winding roads.”
After more than a decade of Ford autonomous vehicle research, the company is dedicated to achieving fully autonomous driving capability, which, as defined by SAE International Level 4, does not require the driver to intervene and take control of the vehicle.
This year, Ford will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet – bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans for testing on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan.
Volvo and Uber get closer to self-driving XC90
Volvo Cars’ first autonomous drive (AD) ready car has entered the next stage of pre-series production at Volvo’s manufacturing plant in Torslanda, Sweden ahead of full production start later this year. The AD-ready XC90 SUV, developed together with Uber, the leading ride-hailing firm, marks a key milestone in the strategic collaboration between the two companies.
Pre series production refers to the stage in the manufacturing process that is undertaken before full-fledged mass scale production. These cars are built in limited numbers for testing and verification purposes.
Uber and Volvo Cars entered a joint engineering agreement in 2016 and have since developed several prototypes aimed at accelerating the companies’ self-driving car development.
The autonomous drive-capable production vehicle is part of Volvo Cars’ 2016 commercial agreement with Uber for the delivery of tens of thousands of autonomous drive-ready base cars in coming years.
The AD-ready XC90 SUV, developed on the SPA2 modular platform is equipped with features that facilitate the introduction of autonomous drive systems and robotaxi services. In particular, the car is equipped with back-up systems for functions such as steering, braking and the battery. If any of the primary systems fail, these systems would immediately act to bring the car to a safe stop instead of relying on a human driver to achieve the task.
The XC90 is one of the first autonomous drive-ready cars in the world and previews the type of autonomous base platform that will be available to consumers on SPA2 cars from the early 2020s.
Maserati goes ‘e’
In line with Fiat Chrysler Automobiles’ €5 billion investment program for Italy, Maserati has announces an innovation plan for production, electrification and autonomous driving technologies.
With regards to production, Maserati has announced plans for a lineup of new and electrified products at Modena, Cassino and Turin (Mirafiori and Grugliasco).
All of Maserati’s new models will be 100 percent made in Italy and will adopt hybrid and battery electric propulsion systems capable of providing both innovation and the high performance embedded in the brand’s DNA. Maserati’s all electric models will combine traditional Maserati driving dynamics together with next-generation battery electric technology, offering unique driving modes, extended range and ultra-fast charging capabilities.
An important step for Maserati innovation is the level of autonomous driving. All new Maseratis, including the updated current models, will offer a range of autonomous driving capabilities, starting with Maserati Level 2 enhanced Highway Assist, progressing to Level 3 with hands-off offering close to full autonomy, having the ability to maneuver in and out of lanes or bring the vehicle to a safe stop at the side of the road if the driver is unable to take control of the vehicle.
In 2020, the Company will embark on electrification and the Maserati Ghibli, produced in Turin, will be the first hybrid electric propulsion for the brand.
The first of the totally new Maseratis to appear will be an eagerly-anticipated sports car – packed with technology and reminescent of Maserati’s traditional values. It will be produced in the Modena plant, where major production line upgrades are also underway to accommodate its electric powertrain.
Next up will be a new Maserati utility vehicle, set to be built at Cassino and destined to play a leading role for the Brand thanks to its innovative technologies. An investment of approximately €800 million has been earmarked for the construction of the new production line, scheduled to open at the end of the first quarter of 2020. The first pre-series cars are expected to roll off the line by 2021.
After many years of success, GranTurismo and GranCabrio remain part of the Brand’s roots and these models will herald the full electrification era for Maserati. The totally New GranTurismo and GranCabrio will be produced at the Turin production hub, where FCA is investing €800 million.
Production of the new models will complement that of the prestigious and continuously improving line-up of current Maserati range: Levante, Quattroporte and Ghibli.
With the introduction of various product innovations, Maserati is reinforcing the importance of Italy with regards to its production — particularly Modena, which will also continue to play a strategic role as the Brand’s headquarters.
Construction has already begun in Modena on a paint shop, a new feature for the plant, which will be equipped with innovative, low environmental-impact technologies. The design of the paint shop will also allow Maserati customers to watch their car being painted.
Finally, Maserati is developing an entirely new customization program for customers seeking a one-of-akind level of exclusivity. A dedicated customization workshop will be created within the Modena plant.
The 2019-2021 FCA investment plan for Italy, announced on 29th November in Turin, includes thirteen totally new or significantly updated FCA models and electrified versions of 12 new or existing models, including the Maserati products, the recently announced all-new electric version of the Fiat 500 to be produced at Mirafiori, and a new premium vehicle for Alfa Romeo to be produced at Pomigliano.