As they keep advancing their self-driving tech, Ford has now become the first automaker to test fully autonomous vehicles in winter weather, which includes snow.
Not only does Ford have the largest fully autonomous vehicle fleet out of all car manufacturers, but they also have the most versatile self-driving cars, currently learning how to drive in snowy conditions, which is a lot more difficult than cruising calmly on the motorway or figuring out what to do is stop&go traffic.
As Ford's Jim McBride puts it, "it's one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather. It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions – for the roughly 70 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions."
Because the Fusion Hybrid's advanced LiDAR tech can't see the road when it's covered in snow, Ford began collaborating with University of Michigan technologists in the hopes of figuring out a way to make their cars fully capable of driving in bad weather.
After thinking it over, they came to the conclusion that in order for the car to properly navigate snowy roads, it needs to be equipped with high-res 3D maps - complete with information about the road, markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography.
"Maps developed by other companies don’t always work in snow-covered landscapes," explained Ryan Eustice, associate professor at University of Michigan college of engineering. "The maps we created with Ford contain useful information about the 3D environment around the car, allowing the vehicle to localize even with a blanket of snow covering the ground."
As the autonomous vehicle creates the maps while driving a particular route in favorable weather, it will automatically learn features such as traffic signs, trees, buildings and so on. This means that it can detect above-ground landmarks in order to pinpoint itself on the map even when it can't see the ground.
McBride added that Ford wants their autonomous cars to eventually "detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it’s safe to keep driving, and if so, for how long."
While extremely impressive, we're very curious to see how car manufacturers (not just Ford) are going to handle those little tricks that human drivers use during the winter - such as rocking back and forward to gain momentum and break free from an icy/snowy patch, or set off in 2nd gear in order to avoid wheelspin in icy conditions.