Ford approaching autonomous car function by function, not all at once

2015 Ford Edge self parking

2015 Ford Edge self parking between two other vehicles, and yes, it did it on its own.

The arrival of the autonomous car, says Ford, will be more like Chanukah than Christmas. Not that the carmaker went theological, Ford indicated that instead of getting everything on one day, presents will come over a period of time. (Yes, we know gift-giving isn’t part of Chanukah, but technically, neither is Christmas, but rather than ruin a perfectly good parable, bear with us). We won’t wake up one morning and see the fully self-driving car parked on our driveway, delivered by Santa from Google or one of the major automobile manufacturers. Rather it will arrive phase by phase, mostly from people we know.

In fact, it has already begun.

“During the next five years, we will move to migrate driver-assist technologies across our product lineup to help make our roads safer and continue to increase automated driving capability,” said Raj Nair, Ford group vice president, Global Product Development, speaking to the press in San Francisco recently, saying that Ford has moved from a “research effort to an advanced engineering project.”

The advanced engineering phase means that the team have moved from basic research making the “required sensing and computing technology feasible for production and continuing testing and refinement of algorithms.”

An early example of rudimentary self-driving capability is now so commonplace that it’s hardly news. Self-parking cars, capable of parallel parking with only minor driver involvement, were once limited to the more expensive automobiles, being introduced in the U.S. by the Lexus LS400. Even then it was fairly picky about where and in what conditions it would park. Now the Ford Escape can parallel park on its almost own. All the driver has to do is drive by a parking spot, engage the system and operate the brake, the latter mostly to keep the system relatively lawyer-proof. The driver is still in ultimate control.

Pro Trailer Backup Assist for 2016 Ford F-150

Ford’s Pro Trailer Backup Assist for 2016 F-150, another step towards the autonomous car

Ford has also introduced perpendicular parking, allowing backing into a parking spot spaced perfectly between vehicles on either side, backing and forthing as needed based on space available. It’s an option on the 2015 Ford Edge.

Ford has already displayed the concept of obstacle avoidance, not available on production vehicles yet. A vehicle equipped with obstacle avoidance would recognize an object in the vehicle’s path and automatically bakes and steer around it. When Ford introduced it as a concept in 2013, it was described as a building block in Ford’s autonomous vehicle development. We could see safety issues, not to mention lawyer bait, of cars removing driver control, however Ford will make pedestrian recognition with automatic braking available as an option on the 2016 Ford Mondeo sedan in Europe.

Another advance in driver assist is Pro Trailer Backup Assist, a feature that will be available on 2016 Ford F-150 pickup trucks. The feature allows the driver essentially steer the trailer with a knob on the dash. The system relies on an advanced rearview camera reading a special tags placed on the trailer tongue to determine which way the trailer is moving and the input the driver should make.

Ford has also developed, though not for market just yet, remote control parking. Operated via a smart phone or other device, the driver can step out of the car and back it in to a tight parking space while standing within six yards of the vehicle. The system would allow parking in a space too small to open the door so a driver behind the wheel could get out.

Eventually, Ford envisions a remote operator driving a vehicle to, for example, a parking space a distance from the drop-off/pickup space. One of the biggest obstacles is bandwidth. There is currently not enough data can be transmitted in real time. Think of operating your car with the data capability of your cell phone. Drop that call? Oops.

Still, autonomous vehicles are coming. It’s a matter of when. And at least with Ford, and really everyone else, you’ll be getting presents day by day, and not all at once. Sorry, Santa.