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Ford Escape Hybrid becomes company's latest self-driving car prototype

The Escape Hybrid will also serve Ford's future autonomous ride-hailing service.

Feast your eyes on Ford's latest self-driving car prototype. If it looks a lot like a Ford Escape Hybrid, well, that's because it is. The automaker on Tuesday revealed the vehicle, which serves as the company's fourth-generation autonomous test car.

Ford said it chose the Escape Hybrid because of its electrification architecture and platform. Essentially, Ford believes what's seen here is "launch-intent," or what will be needed for a future, wide-scale rollout of a self-driving ride-hailing service. That was supposed to happen next year, but Ford said this year that due to the coronavirus pandemic it now targets 2022. 

Aside from the benefits the hybrid architecture brings to the program, Ford needed a new building block for its self-driving car program; the Ford Fusion that long served as its autonomous prototype car is now out of production.

But this isn't just the same tech plopped into an Escape Hybrid. Ford and its partner Argo AI made some meaningful improvements to the system that are supposed to help a self-driving car carry out its duties. An upgraded lidar unit includes higher resolution cameras and more sensors to see not only far ahead of the car, but provide a better look closer to the vehicle. Sensors now also feed pictures from the side and rear of the car. Ford likened the extras to a "blind spot curtain" to help the robotics detect anything, anywhere.

Unlike some companies moving forward with autonomous cars based on electric vehicles, the Escape Hybrid still functions primarily with its gasoline-powered engine. This fourth-gen prototype includes a modified battery, however, with more cells to power all the equipment that lets the car "see" the world. Thus, there's less of a reliance on gasoline to power the extras. 

And it may sound silly, but the latest prototype boasts some much better cleaning systems to keep all of the sensors and cameras clear. Dirt, grime and even bird poo can cause problems if they skew the car's vision. More spray nozzles and air chambers to blow debris off are onboard to keep the Escape Hybrid's eyesight squeaky clean.

With two years to go before Ford plans to hit the ground running with its self-driving ride-hailing service, we'll start to see these Escapes touch down in multiple US cities to continue their testing.

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