- The Washington Times - Thursday, October 28, 2010

Ford is taking a practical, consumer-driven approach to advancing the field of autonomous driving and is urging widespread collaboration with groups ranging from academia, government, suppliers and technology innovation companies, to the expert gamer and biologist schooled in chaos theory.

“We have to take a holistic approach to autonomous driving, and that can only come with input from many different sources,” said Jeffrey Rupp, who has led the Ford Active Safety team’s research for the past nine years and co-authored the award-winning technical paper Autonomous Driving - A Practical Roadmap. “Something as complex as a fully autonomous vehicle can only be achieved by taking careful evolutionary steps, rather than one revolutionary leap.

“At Ford, the process has already begun with the introduction of collision avoidance technologies such as Adaptive Cruise Control, Lane Departure Warning and Blind Spot Information System, and the new MyFord Touch driver interface - all act as fundamental building blocks, guiding and nurturing our customers to the next level in personal transportation.”

Rupp and Anthony King, a Ford product design engineer, co-authored the technical paper on autonomous driving, which beat out nearly 50 other submissions to win the Society of Automotive Engineers (SAE) International’s Trevor O. Jones Outstanding Paper Award.

Honors were announced this week at the 2010 SAE Convergence conference, the biannual gathering of thousands of automotive, technology and electrical engineers. The Trevor O. Jones award acknowledges papers for their originality, value and insightfulness about trends in automotive electronics, and is named after Convergence founder and transportation electronics pioneer Trevor Jones.

“My thanks and congratulations are extended to the authors, their colleagues and Ford Motor Company for supporting crucial forward-looking developments in autonomous driving,” said Trevor Jones, the award’s namesake. “Fully implemented autonomous driving will represent a much-needed change in automobile safety philosophy by moving away from crash survival to one of effective crash avoidance. I’m most pleased that the Ford paper on this topic was selected for this prestigious award.”

Future of the driverless vehicle

Although not new in theory, the idea of autonomous driving or the self-driving car continues to gain momentum as electronics, robotics and computing power improves. Recently, cloud-computing powerhouse Google even announced that its engineering team has been conducting on-road experiments with self-driving cars it has equipped with detection, video, motion sensors and GPS technology.

“Autonomous vehicles will likely need to be better drivers than humans before they gain initial acceptance, let alone widespread implementation,” said Rupp. “I applaud Google’s efforts to align itself with some of the top-ranked experts in this area and make a tangible contribution to progress. The invaluable work they have done mapping the earth is an important building block to making more autonomous driving a reality.

“At Ford, we believe we have an obligation to our customers to bring them along step-by-step, if a fully autonomous vehicle is ever going to be a safe alternative that is welcome and widely accepted,” he added.

Rupp and other Ford researchers have been studying and making significant advances in technologies such as radar, sensing, and detection, which are critical for autonomous vehicle applications, for decades. Ford, in fact, launched the world’s first-to-market radar-based adaptive cruise control system with braking for an automobile in 1999 on the Jaguar XKR after seven years of extensive controls development and testing. The following year, Ford introduced Electronic Stability Control (ESC), with ESC with Roll Stability Control launching soon after.

By 2001, Ford created a separate Active Safety engineering team to focus specifically on the rapid development and long-term potential of driver support, accident avoidance and autonomous driver systems. As a result, other available semiautonomous technologies soon followed for Ford products, including Lane Departure Warning, Blind Spot Information System with Cross-Traffic Alert, Collision Warning with Brake Support, and Active Park Assist. All of these act as a springboard to a more autonomous vehicle experience.

“Knowing our customer base, Ford’s position is that what consumers really want is not a driverless car, but rather a car that can drive itself with manual assistance when needed,” said Rupp. “You, the driver, are still managing the overall process, akin to the captain of a ship or autopilot, but you are not necessarily locked into the moment-to-moment tasks of driving.”

An active participant in the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency (DARPA)-controlled autonomous vehicle challenges in 2004, 2005 and 2007, Ford continues to carefully test out related driver-assist and vehicle-to-vehicle communication technologies with research vehicles today. In addition, Ford has collected thousands of miles of road data through its Mother of All Road Trips (MOART), a 25-state, 60,000-mile data collection project designed to help engineers fine-tune driver-assist system algorithms to prevent false alerts.

Although lessons learned from DARPA, MOART and other on-site experiments are being translated for yet-to-be-announced near-term vehicle features, the Ford engineering team still agrees that driverless-car technology is not yet ready for real-world applications and that, more importantly, consumers are not yet ready to totally give up control of their mobility.

Building on this premise, Ford is painstakingly examining the more consumer-driven aspects of creating an autonomous vehicle environment, including outlining those tasks automotive consumers wish were more efficient; what can be done to improve the human-machine user interface for more accurate situational awareness support; and how to make the transition from being the “driver” of the car to becoming the “operator” of the car seamless, safe and comfortable for the customer.

“We need to take the time to understand true consumer values, and then work together with multiple industry partners to engineer the technology and infrastructure for a safe, secure driving experience; one that inspires consumer confidence,” said Rupp.

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