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Bugs are no match for Ford's self-driving car sensors

Some clever engineering ensures sensors stay free of smushed bugs.

Ford self-driving car sensor cleaner
Bug guts, be gone!

We've all been there. You're cruising along the highway, and suddenly, there are bug guts on the windshield. It's common, but for human drivers, we can typically see past the issue. For self-driving cars , early prototypes absolutely rely on sensors and cameras to "see" the world around them. A smashed bug could keep the car from operating properly.

No one said engineering was a sexy field all the time, and Ford took a close look at how it can avoid mishaps involving smashed bugs and sensors. In the end, it outfitted its self-driving prototype vehicles with a few counter measures to keep insects from colliding with the technology.

It starts with what Ford called the "tiara," or the crown that houses cameras and lidar that make the autonomous car tick. The housing is defense line number one in that funnels air through various slots around camera lenses. The whole idea is to keep bugs from making contact with the cameras in the first place. Ideally, an air curtain of sorts pushes them out of the way. And the engineering team quickly found it was very effective. Bug deaths dropped significantly and both sensors and cameras remained clean.

The solution, however, wasn't perfect. Every so often, bugs still slammed into sensors while the car traveled at speed. Thus, it was time for another line of defense. Per Ford, the company still needed to understand how to keep the sensor totally clean, and it came back to a little bit of current-day technology: washer nozzles.

They're not your run-of-the-mill washers, though. The smart nozzles sit next to each camera lens to spray the components as needed. The self-driving car also features an algorithm to determine when a lens is too dirty and sprays as needed. Perhaps only one camera needs it, or maybe several do. The computer decides that and solves the problem in a clever way.

But what of the liquid now obscuring the lens? Back to the "tiara." It's designed with a special slot to dry the lenses naturally as it pushes air into the face of the lens.

These are small, yet incredibly important, facets of self-driving cars that we often don't think about. Yet, one by one, automakers and companies are checking off hurdles to automation -- even if said hurdle is simply an insect zipping about.

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