Ford research vehicles use LiDAR to drive at night

Ford tests autonomous research vehicles at night to demonstrate independence of LiDAR systems

While it’s ideal to have all three modes of sensors – radar, cameras and LiDAR – the latter can function independently on roads without stoplights.
While it’s ideal to have all three modes of sensors – radar, cameras and LiDAR – the latter can function independently on roads without stoplights.
Night vision reveals the LiDAR ladar pulses to the human eye in the form of a grid of infrared beams projected around the vehicle.
Night vision reveals the LiDAR ladar pulses to the human eye in the form of a grid of infrared beams projected around the vehicle.

A Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle with no headlights is being used to navigate at night along lonely desert roads using LiDAR, a laser-based surveying technology, performing a task that would be perilous for a human driver.

Driving in pitch black at Ford’s proving ground in Arizona, the successful application of LiDAR techniques to generate high-resolution 3D maps marks the next step on Ford’s journey to delivering fully autonomous vehicles to customers around the globe.

“Thanks to LiDAR, the test cars aren’t reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt,” said 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.”

It’s an important development, in that it shows that even without cameras, Ford’s LiDAR – working with the car’s virtual driver software – is robust enough to steer flawlessly around winding roads.

LiDAR shoots out 2.8 million laser pulses a second to precisely scan the surrounding environment to allow a vehicle to pinpoint its surrounding in real time, including information about the road, road markings, geography, topography and landmarks like signs, buildings and trees.

While it’s ideal to have all three modes of sensors – radar, cameras and LiDAR – the latter can function independently on roads without headlight or spotlights.

For the desert test, Ford engineers sporting night-vision goggles monitored the Fusion from inside and outside the vehicle. Night vision also 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.

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

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.

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 to a total of about 30 self-driving Fusion Hybrids – all of them to be used for testing on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan.

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