Ford is developing a new hands-free driving aid that's similar to or General Motors' acclaimed , the company confirmed Thursday. When it launches next year, Active Drive Assist will enable hands-free motoring on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in the US and Canada under specific circumstances.
An evolution of today's adaptive cruise control and lane-centering technologies, this system will be offered on certain 2021 model-year Ford vehicles, including the electricSUV, which will be the first to get the tech. At the time of purchase, early adopters of this all-electric SUV will be able to order Active Drive Assist hardware as part of the Ford Co-Pilot 360 Active 2.0 Prep Package. In 2021, likely in the third quarter, software that enables hands-free driving can be bought and added to the vehicle, either via an over-the-air update or installed at a dealership. Active Drive Assist will be standard on certain models of the Mach-E and optional on others.
As with GM's, driver monitoring is critical to providing hands-free functionality. A motorist has to be aware of their surroundings and able to intervene at any time should the system demand it. "You are always in charge and you must pay attention to the road ahead," Darren Palmer, Ford's global director for battery electric vehicles, told Roadshow on a conference call with the media this week. It's worth remembering that while there are no autonomous cars on sale today, there are varying levels of assistance and partial automation available.
Keeping track of the driver's gaze and head position is an infrared camera supported by multiple infrared emitters. This arrangement should work in all kinds of lighting conditions even if the driver is wearing sunglasses or a face mask. In the Mach-E, this camera is mounted on the dashboard, so it's not obstructed by the steering wheel or the motorist's hands. This driver monitor is crucial to safely allowing for hands-free driving, and it's a feature Tesla does not yet offer. (Although some newer Teslas are fitted with cabin-facing cameras, they don't inform Autopilot's functionality. It remains a hands-on system.)
Palmer said it takes people around seven minutes to really begin trusting the system. After that, they start to do other things. Should you become distracted, like spending a little too long playing with your phone or, heaven forbid, have some sort of medical emergency, the system will alert you via a series of escalating warnings. If those fail, eventually the vehicle will slow down, ultimately stopping in its lane. Still, as long as you're looking ahead and ready to take control, you can sip your latte or gesticulate wildly while chatting with passengers -- just make sure the camera can see your face.
Active Drive Assist requires a lot more technology than just some sort of monitoring system. While speaking on the same conference call, Chris Billman, engineering manager of Ford Co-Pilot 360 said, "We are using a host of other sensors on the vehicle." This includes cameras and even radar arrays, undoubtedly tied together by untold lines of computer code.
A friendly user interface should encourage customers to use Active Drive Assist. In the Mach-E, the instrument cluster shows a blue bubble around an image of the vehicle when this system is engaged. The people developing this system wanted to make everything easy to understand, because many people have little or no experience with technology like this. Also, Palmer said Ford's offering doesn't lock on like competing systems, which can require real steering-wheel wrestling while changing lanes. In this area, Active Drive Assist should be much softer and gentler.
Ensuring its robustness, Ford has conducted more than 650,000 miles of testing in the US, Canada and even Europe. The system has been subjected to all manner of conditions, too, from rain and snow to bright sun, darkness and traffic jams. If you're not driving on any of those 100,000 miles of specially designated roadway, you can always use the standard adaptive cruise control system with lane-centering tech. This hands-on option works on any road with lines.
All of this sounds strikingly similar to GM Super Cruise, but the two systems are totally separate. According to Billman, everything here has been developed by Ford and nothing is licensed from its crosstown rival.
More features and other updates
Beyond the addition of Active Drive Assist, Ford is enhancing other parts of its driver assistance technology suite. For instance, the Ford Co-Pilot 360 2.0 standard package on the Mach-E includes a bunch of driver aids like automatic high beams and a reverse-sensing system, but two upgrades have been made to the lane-keeping system. Engineers added something called road-edge detection and blind-spot assist. The former keeps track of lane markings, grassy edges and even dirt shoulders. It can alert the driver if they're drifting in their lane of travel. This should be useful, particularly in rural areas. The latter item tracks other vehicles in your blind spots and can nudge the steering wheel to help avoid collisions.
Beyond all that, Ford has improved its adaptive cruise-control system in the Co-Pilot 360 2.0 standard package by adding better stop-and-go capability. In heavy traffic, if the vehicle slows down to a halt, it will automatically resume within 30 seconds opposed to just three seconds as it does now.
Finally, a new item called intersection assist has been developed. This feature is designed to prevent collisions while making left-hand turns. Using vehicle sensors, it can detect oncoming traffic and alert the driver to its presence or even apply the brakes to prevent a crash.
Pricing and availability
It's still early days, but Ford's Active Drive Assist is something to get excited about, as are the other improved driver aids it will be offering. Specifics on options packages and vehicle availability are expected to be announced in 2021. Right now, the Mach-E is the only nameplate confirmed to be getting these features. Likewise, it's too soon to talk about pricing, but according to Palmer, "It will be highly competitive." Autopilot, for instance, is available across the Tesla range for an upcharge of $7,000.
It seems unlikely Ford, a much more mass-market brand that lacks the panache and perceived coolness of Tesla, could charge that much for its system. But that's good news for drivers, as the automaker could really democratize this sort of technology by offering Active Drive Assist for a much more modest fee.