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Ford Autonomous Research Vehicles Use Lidar to Drive without Headlights

Photonics.com
Apr 2016
WITTMANN, Ariz., April 12, 2016 — A recent test at the Ford Motor Company’s Arizona Proving Ground demonstrated the Ford Focus’s ability to use lidar sensor technology and 3D maps to drive in the dark without headlights.

Ford said the development shows that even without light-dependent cameras, the lidar system and virtual driver software can successful steer around winding roads. While it’s ideal to have all three available modes of sensors — radar, cameras and lidar — the latter can function independently on roads without stoplights.


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. Courtesy of Business Wire. 
To navigate in the dark, self-driving cars use high-resolution 3D maps 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, and 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 performing in the form of a grid of IR 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, Ford said.

“Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I only saw darkness,” said 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.”

Ford autonomous vehicle research has been ongoing for about a decade, and the company said it’s working toward 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.

Ford said it will triple its autonomous vehicle test fleet in 2016, bringing the number to about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrid sedans for testing on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan.


GLOSSARY
lidar
An acronym of light detection and ranging, describing systems that use a light beam in place of conventional microwave beams for atmospheric monitoring, tracking and detection functions. Ladar, an acronym of laser detection and ranging, uses laser light for detection of speed, altitude, direction and range; it is often called laser radar.
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