Ford isn't winning the self-driving car race, but that's OK
Join us for a trip to Miami where Ford and Argo AI are demonstrating the current state of their self-driving cars. They're not ready for prime-time, but Ford CEO Jim Hackett is OK with that.
Tim StevensFormer editor at large for CNET Cars
Tim Stevens got his start writing professionally while still in school in the mid '90s, and since then has covered topics ranging from business process management to video game development to automotive technology.
For a sign of Ford's intent when it comes to self-driving cars, you needn't look further than the $1 billion investment it made into Argo AI last year. That may seem petite compared to the staggering $175 billion valuation Waymo is swinging around, but throwing $1 billion at a Pittsburgh-based startup shows that Ford is intent on being a contender when it's finally time for the rubber to hit the road sans driver.
While the Blue Oval has done extensive testing of various autonomous systems for many years in many places, including extensive work at Michigan's Mcity, the company and its now majority-owned partner Argo chose Miami, Florida as the model city to demonstrate its driverless ridesharing program. And so that's where I went to see how it's all coming together.
The platform for Ford's current autonomy is a Ford Fusion that's received a hat -- or a "tiara" in the more evocative Argo parlance. It's within that headgear we find the bulk of the sensors the car uses to see the world, including an array of cameras, overlapping and with varying focal lengths to keep an eye all around.
Above those sensors is a pair of Velodyne lidar scanners, spinning and measuring to create a 3D point map of the world. These are joined by radar scanners mounted within the car, building on its adaptive cruise functionality.
All those inputs talk to a trunk full of computers that I didn't get a chance to examine, but you need only stand within a few feet of the rear of the car to detect its presence. Such is the volume of hot air billowing outward. Indeed, no worries about rear seat heaters, which in many locales would be a lovely thing in November. Not so much in Miami.
My November visit was a hot and humid and sticky one in southern Florida, with temperatures hovering around 90 Fahrenheit. Thankfully, the clockwork, midday showers do help to clear the air. On the surface this doesn't seem like a logical locale for autonomous testing, but then that's exactly what makes it a good one.
Suffice to say that Miami is a... challenging place to drive. Florida senator Jeff Brandes called it a "double black diamond city" thanks to the constant construction, heavy congestion and pedestrians with creative interpretations of right-of-way. Marcy Klevorn, Ford president of mobility, euphemistically said it's a city "rich with learning and experiences." That's certainly true whether or not you're a four-wheeled robot.
We human passengers are really good at reading the intentions of other humans at a glance. If your human driver is looking at that cyclist cruising the wrong way down a street, you can feel reasonably comfortable that they'll take the necessary avoiding maneuvers. How do you get the same assurance from a faceless, heartless autonomous car?
The answer, of course, is via displays. The Argo system relies on so-called "situational awareness displays" that hang on the back of the front seats, basically showing a simplified version of the 3-D point cloud generated by the lidar scanners. In this way, the AI driver identifies surrounding cars and trees and pedestrians, virtually saying: "Don't worry, I got this." Displays also show things like upcoming traffic signs and lights, even highlighting which direction the car's turn signal is indicating.
These displays are a vital part of the experience, but I was able to receive some more direct feedback on the car's behavior thanks to not one but two very human operators of this self-driving car.
At this point, Ford and Argo's self-driving cars are always staffed by not one but two human beings at all times. In the driver's seat is the safety operator, sitting with hands hovering over the wheel, ready and able to take control at any moment.
In the passenger seat is the iron-stomached co-driver, watching a real-time view of the car's sensory inputs and constantly tapping away at a laptop to log various happenings, things like interventions or curious behavior in the car. The two occupants together ensure the car does what it should, stepping in to prevent anything unseemly. Interestingly, the safety operator is actually encouraged to do this without second thought.
Sherif Marakby, president and CEO of Ford Autonomous Vehicles, explained this to me: "We see interventions in a very different light. We see it as a good thing... We record that data and put it into simulation so we're not risking anything on the road. We can do it in the computer."
This is somewhat a contrary to much of the autonomous competition, which pride themselves on covering endless miles without need for a helping hand. According to Marakby, that's missing the point: "There are a lot of metrics out there that talk about number of miles or interventions per mile and it all depends on these things. I can go on the highway and not have any interventions, but what's the point? That isn't going to get us to what we need to do. What we're doing is."
This is indicative of Ford and Argo's strong focus on safety, but also a reminder that Ford's technology is still very much in the oven.
Once I was off and rolling the car felt, more or less, like any other car. It's really interesting to feel the different character of various self-driving systems. Some are cautious and slow, others aggressive and firm. The system in development by Ford and Argo AI definitely skews toward the latter -- at least, some of the time.
In one situation, making a left-turn in dense traffic, the Fusion accelerated itself quickly to duck through a gap. This was perfectly safe and there was room, but it was definitely the kind of move that makes you sit up and pay attention. More importantly, over the handful of rides I was able to experience in Ford's cars, I was cut off by human drivers no fewer than four times, sometimes quite aggressively. The car handled each transgression cleanly without problem, applying brakes as needed to avoid collision.
The most difficult situation, however, was with a wayward pedestrian strolling along in the right lane of a two-lane street. The car simply followed him for about 10 seconds, probably longer than you or I would have. But, once it decided the pedestrian was going to continue in a generally straightforward path, the car safely moved to pass the man and we were back on our way.
A block later, we got stuck in traffic and the brazen jay-walker actually managed to pass us back. Proof that sometimes walking is faster even than cars from the future.
The Fusion's behavior wasn't all perfect, however. Ford's car got confused attempting to merge left into traffic at one point. It lurched to a stop, turn signal blinking away in futility. The human safety operator eventually had to take control and ease us in. These cars are also incapable of detecting potholes and puddles, of which there are many in Miami. The frequent crossing of those surface imperfections, plus the aforementioned aggression on the gas and brakes, made for a somewhat nauseating experience not unlike that of a Yellow Cab driver with a bit of a lead foot.
So yes, Ford's car isn't quite perfect today, but then nobody ever said it would be. Ford is being candid about the system's release not coming until 2021, and given that I must say the Fusion actually drove itself more comprehensively than I might have expected.
Still, if the development of self-driving cars is a race, and if deploying self-driving systems to normal human beings is the finish line, then Waymo certainly looks set to take the checkered flag. However, when I asked Ford CEO Jim Hackett about speed to market, he made it quite clear that his company's vision is focused further down the road. And, more importantly, it's not focused on technology, it's focused on people.
"It's the right design that wins. Henry Ford was one of 200. I remind you of Commodore and Compaq and where are they today? Where's Nokia? What it teaches me, the history of that, is the human-centered interpretation of that is how I've been trained in business. That causes adoption. We've got to get that part right."
In other words, perfecting the art of autonomy is less about training neural networks and more about meeting your needs. So, then, what do you want from a self-driving car?
Update, 3:25 p.m. Eastern: Previously this article mentioned issues with the displays within the car. Per Argo engineers, the issue was due to cabling dislodged during the filming process. We've updated the article to remove that mention.
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