Ford tests autonomous vehicles in snow at Mcity facility
15 JANUARY 2016
It’s a perennial complaint from drivers in cold locations: “People from [place where temperatures are warmer] don’t know how to drive in snow! One flake lands, and [people who live in warm place] go crazy!” In this age of driverless vehicles, however, that observation must be updated: “Cars with no drivers from [warm place] don’t know how to handle snow!” That’s why Ford is testing their autonomous vehicles in the snow at the Mcity facility at the University of Michigan, the industry’s first inclement-weather tests. Mcity is a 32-acre simulated town, complete with streets, buildings, and a variety of driving challenges such as roundabouts and parking lots.
“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow.” Most driverless vehicles undergo testing in areas with mostly dry, sunny conditions, but McBride points out that about 70 percent of U.S. residents live in regions that receive snowfall each year. Since many driverless cars use LIDAR or cameras to sense the roadway, enough snow can interfere with visibility and make those systems useless.
Ford’s solution is high-resolution 3D maps in each car, created during favorable weather conditions. The car identifies cues from these maps, such as road markings, signs, topography, and landmarks. When the LIDAR system cannot sense the road, the car orients itself by finding cues around it. “Maps developed by other companies don’t always work in snow-covered landscapes,” said Ryan Eustice, associate professor at University of Michigan. “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.”
Jim McBride says that the safety systems of the modified Ford Fusions work in tandem with the autonomous programming to drive safely. “We eventually want our autonomous vehicles to detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it’s safe to keep driving, and if so, for how long.” For now, however, such vehicles will remain on the tightly-controlled streets of Mcity.