A safe, VERY safe ride in a self-driving Ford Fusion

Greg Gardner
Detroit Free Press

After a 10-minute ride in the back seat of a self-driving Ford Fusion hybrid on a loop around the company's Dearborn research campus, I felt safer than if I had driven myself.

A Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous test vehicle is shown equipped with LiDAR technology sensors on the roof of the vehicle at the Ford Product Development Center in Dearborn, Mich. Monday, Sept. 12, 2016. Gary Malerba/Special For DFP

It reminded me a little of my first successful driver's test at age 16. Stop a little longer. Wait until the pedestrian completely crosses the intersection. Remember, the instructor could take something valuable away.

This was the opposite of my ride with NASCAR legend Bill Elliott at Road Atlanta back in the 1990s.

"We follow the speed limit (in this case 25 miles per hour). We drive by the letter of the law," said Schuyler Cohn, one of two Ford autonomous vehicle engineers who served as my fellow passengers. "We're going to stop for pedestrians at crosswalks, maybe a little longer than most people would."

Today, Ford has 10 of these vehicles and 20 more are in production, said Randy Visintainer, Ford director of autonomous vehicles. By 2018, Ford employees will be able to use them to get from one point to another within the area roughly bounded by Oakwood Boulevard, Rotunda Drive and Snow Avenue.

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If you're seeking a "Fast and Furious" experience, this technology isn't for you.

But Ford has sufficiently refined its small fleet of self-driving Fusion hybrids to allow an international media group to test it on a specific route. The automaker has pledged to deliver a fully autonomous vehicle — no steering wheel, gas or brake pedal — to a ride-sharing service by 2021.

As Ford and other automakers admit, this technology is aimed at a very different pool of customers than those who have bought five generations of Mustangs or placed the earliest order for the GT ultra sports car.

“Why are we doing this? Consumer attitudes and their priorities regarding vehicles and transportation are changing, " said Ford CEO Mark Fields. "The world has moved from owning vehicles to owning and sharing them. This is driving us to reconsider our entire business model."

The self-driving Fusions still have steering wheels, gas and brake pedals. Ford engineer Jakob Hoellerbauer sat behind the wheel and could have taken control if needed.

Still it's easy to spot them from the outside. They all carry a contraption that looks a little like a bike carrier on the roof. Within that device are mounted four rapidly rotating cylinders about the size of a 20-ounce aluminum soft drink can. Those are the lidar modules that emit light beams at a staggering speed to capture every detail of the environment within about 100 meters of the vehicle.

That landscape has already been mapped in three dimensions down to a 1-centimeter definition of each stop sign, parked car or curb.

Velodyne, the lidar supplier in which Ford has invested $150 million, is close to releasing the next generation of lidar modules, which will make those rotating cylinders smaller and easier to package.

Complementing those spinning cylinders are tiny cameras mounted on bumpers and side mirrors as well as short- and long-range radar.

While the technology can "teach" the vehicle to stay within lane lines, stop at traffic lights and stop lights and detect pedestrians, bicycles and even pets or other animals, it can't yet recognize the hand waves, head nods and other interpersonal nonverbal communication that drivers use to avoid fender benders at intersections.  At least not yet.

Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles, said his team also has mapped routes from Ford World Headquarters along I-94 to Metro Airport. That requires programming the vehicle differently.

"With highway routes, you don't have a lot of intersecting streets, pedestrians or cars," McBride said. "But the kinetic energy is very high. Things happen very fast. You need to sense further out and plan for quicker reaction times.

"In an urban environment, you don't have to sense as far, but then there's a lot of clutter. Pedestrians and cars and unprotected left turns and driveways. You trade higher kinetic energy for more complexity."

Then there's the challenge of getting sensors and light beams to clearly read the road in snow, ice and even heavy rain.

Figuring out how to build these vehicles in a conventional assembly plant is yet another task before McBride and Visintainer. Now these few research Fusions are hand-built in Dearborn, but that is extremely expensive. Remember, these cars initially will be sold or leased to ride-hailing companies that aren't yet profitable themselves.

But the technology has advanced greatly in just the last year. The major players of the auto industry and Silicon Valley have committed billions of dollars already. Uber is launching a few fully autonomous vehicles in its Pittsburgh service this month.

Ford has sold vehicles to Uber that the ride-sharing company has outfitted with its own autonomous sensing gear, Fields said.

Ford is not about to de-emphasize its core business. Tuesday, many of the media reps who rode in the back seat of the autonomous Fusions will test drive the new Super Duty pickup that is expected to bolster Ford's bottom line at a time of flattening industry sales in the U.S.

In the foreseeable future, all automakers will be fighting a two-front war: Make even better and safer personal use vehicles that excite their owners, while staking their claims in this new frontier of shared mobility.

"It will come down to what is the experience you get as you call for the vehicle," Fields said. "There’s a lot of things in that mix that allow us to differentiate ourselves."

Contact Greg Gardner: (313) 222-8762 or ggardner@freepress.com. Follow him on Twitter @GregGardner12