Autonomous Cars In Snow? Ford, University Of Michigan Say Yes!

The whole autonomous car concept has come under considerable criticism for its reliability, particularly under non-ideal (i.e., Midwest in winter as opposed to California in summer) conditions.

Two great Michigan institutions, the Ford Motor Company and the University of Michigan, have combined to do some research and testing.

(Ford and UM test autonomous cars in snow video)

Under sunny skies, Ford's testbed autonomous Fusion Hybrid sedans rely on LiDAR sensors that can pinpoint lane location with centimeter accuracy. LiDAR emits short pulses of laser light to precisely allow the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3-D image of what's around it.

However, LiDAR cannot see the road when snow obstructs it from view like during inclement weather or in high-density traffic, according to a Ford statement. The same is true when the sensor lens is covered by snow, grime or debris.

The solution Ford and U-M are working on involves high-resolution 3-D maps complete with information about the road and what's above it, including road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography. U-M researchers have developed these maps and Ford's test vehicles are equipped with them.

"Maps developed by other companies don't always work in snow-covered landscapes. The ones developed by Ford and the University of Michigan do," Eustice said. "The maps we create contain useful information about the 3-D environment around the car, allowing it to localize even with a blanket of snow covering the ground."

The autonomous vehicles create the maps while driving the test environment in favorable weather. Technologies automatically annotate features like traffic signs, trees and buildings later. Then, when the vehicles cannot see the ground, they detect above-ground landmarks to pinpoint themselves on the map, which they then use to drive successfully.

"The vehicle's normal safety systems, like electronic stability control and traction control, which often are used on slippery winter roads, worked perfectly alongside the autonomous driving software," McBride said. "We eventually want our autonomous vehicles to detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it's safe to keep driving, and if so, for how long."

One of science fiction's great writers, Arthur C. Clarke, described fully autonomous cars in his 1976 novel Imperial Earth:

As the beautiful old car cruised in almost perfect silence under the guidance of its automatic controls, Duncan tried to see something of the terrain through which she was passing... Duncan could count at least 20 vehicles of different types and even though they were all moving in the same direction, the spectacle was somewhat alarming...
(Read more about Arthur C. Clarke's autonomous cars)

It's snowy outside here in Michigan; I'm hoping to use my autonomous car in all seasons. Go Ford and Go Blue!

Via Michigan Record.

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