Auto Tech

How Ford plans to ensure its self-driving cars are safe

Ford is developing redundant electrical systems and many other safeguards for autonomous vehicles.

Ford

Ford plans to launch a fully self-driving car by 2021 -- an idea of what it might look like is shown below -- and the automaker is keen to reassure the driving public that such a vehicle will prioritize safety. A new report from Ford underlines all the many steps the company is taking to keep its autonomous vehicles as safe as possible.

Ford 2021 autonomous vehicle

Under this sheet is a fully self-driving car that Ford hopes to launch in 2021.

Ford

First, a word on the self-driving vehicle itself. Ford first confirmed plans to launch such a model by 2021 a few years ago. It'll be a completely autonomous vehicle without traditional pedals or a steering wheel. But Ford doesn't plan to sell the vehicle to consumers; rather, it'll operate as a ride-hailing vehicle that people can summon to transport them from one place to another. Ford says the vehicle will be a hybrid, and that it'll benefit from Ford's experience with developing other taxis and commercial vehicles.

Of course, when a car has no pedals for humans to take over, you need to be sure the car can handle emergencies and failures itself. That's why Ford stresses that its self-driving vehicles will have redundant power and control systems. If one steering or braking system fails, Ford promises that "the second system is able to guide the vehicle to a controlled stop." That also includes making sure that all of the car's on-board sensors can hold up to the tough life cycles (e.g. inclement weather, huge temperature variations) that cars must endure.

And if something does go wrong? Ford's autonomous vehicles will follow what the company calls a Minimal Risk Condition mode -- basically, a way for the vehicle to safely stop if possible. The car's response will depend on how serious the error or problem is. "Minor faults not affecting the ability to drive are flagged for later resolution," Ford says, "while more serious conditions might entail the decision to securely stop at a waypoint a short distance away, on the shoulder at the next opportunity or immediately."

Ford Miami Self-Driving Cars

Ford is currently testing self-driving cars on roads in Miami, as well as in Michigan and in Pittsburgh.

Ford

The self-driving vehicles will also only be allowed to operate in specific situations that Ford deems its Operational Design Domain. That might list specific roads, types of roads, traffic situations or weather conditions. If the car's systems detect that it's operating outside of those criteria, the car would automatically switch to the Minimal Risk Condition mode and find a way to stop safely.

Ford does plan for the car launching in 2021 to be able to drive both at day and at night, and in light rain, but notes that the Operational Design Domain might exclude highways or "complex intersections" that are too intense for its software to safely handle. For a potential ride-share user, that might mean you have a longer and/or slower route than if you drove manually, albeit in the name of safety.

Another safety question is how the self-driving car will communicate with other road users. A human might nod or gesture with their hands (hopefully, uh, polite gestures), but a computer can't do either of those things. Ford instead envisions putting a bar of white lights at the top of the car's windshield: a steady central light means the car is driving, a blinking one means it's about to set off and "rotating" lights would signal that the car is yielding to another vehicle, pedestrian or cyclist. Such signals only work, though, if other people understand them, so Ford says it will work with the Society of Automotive Engineers and other groups to come up with a standard signaling system for self-driving cars.

Of course, we're still a long way from the day Ford will actually put its self-driving taxis on the roads. Expect to hear much more about the models in the coming years.