While Google is making great headway in advancing its cutting-edge driverless car technology, predicted to hit the streets in five years from now, most if not all of the testing is carried out in Silicon Valley, which makes it near-impossible to find out how the cars would operate in a different climate.
Taking advantage of being based in Detroit, known for its variable weather, the car manufacturer Ford had recently undertook this challenge and found it to be incredibly difficult – since most autonomous systems rely, or at least heavily utilize, painted markings on the road, this becomes a problem as soon as they become covered in snow.
Even though this is still a tricky issue for the new technology, it is exactly in environments with reduced visibility that these robot vehicles could do the most good – a car that can get through a blizzard without sliding off the road would be a welcome addition to anywhere that experiences heavy snow.
To solve the problem, Ford engineers expanded the scope of the car’s laser scanners, thereby creating a three-dimensional map of the surroundings, including things like buildings, trees and signs, so the car could orient itself even when the shape of the road is obscured by piles of snow or ruts from passing cars.
“We feel it’s important to test in weather like snow, and not only to do the testing to understand how the system performs and how we can improve it, but also to let the public know we are looking at these conditions, and we’re looking at how to make our systems robust to these weather conditions,” said Randy Visintainer, Director of Autonomous Vehicles and Controls at Ford.
The scanners used in the car are very accurate and refresh quickly, which makes them effective under any level of precipitation.
Furthermore, trying to foresee other potential problems while driving in snowy locations, the engineers also programmed the car to calculate not only the safest way forward, but also the best escape plan, should a chunk of ice or rock unexpectedly take out a sensor, making the car effectively blind.
Last week at CES 2016, Ford had announced it’s tripling the size of its autonomous test fleet, with most of the testing set to take place in Michigan’s Mcity testing facility.