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Hands Off! Riding Along in Ford’s Autonomous Fusion

Paul A. Eisenstein

There's no mistaking that this isn't your typical Ford Fusion. Not with the four whirling dervishes bulging from the roof. They're LIDAR devices, a fancy form of laser that sees the world in highly detailed 3D, and they're an essential tool in the effort to bring self-driving vehicles to the road.

Autonomous vehicles have become the darlings of the auto industry, with a handful of products capable of limited, hands-free driving - such as the Tesla Model S and the 2017 Mercedes-Benz E-Class - already on the road. A number of automakers intend to launch fully autonomous vehicles by the beginning of the decade, but Ford hopes to leapfrog its competitors, taking the driver out of the picture entirely by 2021.

Read More: Honda Shows Off New Self-Driving Car

This white Ford Fusion prototype isn't quite there yet. Jakob Hoellenbauer, a corporate software engineer, sits in the driver's seat, his hands ready to grab the wheel in an emergency as we head out from Ford's product development center for a test drive.

Checking a few gauges, Hoellenbauer taps the "OK" button on the Fusion's wheel and lets his arms relax by his side. The midsize sedan suddenly comes to life and begins navigating out of the parking lot before merging into traffic on Village Road in the Detroit suburb of Dearborn, Michigan.

A moment later, the Fusion slows to a stop. Someone has entered a crosswalk, the car's "sensor fusion" of LIDAR, radar and cameras "seeing" both the pedestrian and the flashing warning lights. A moment later, the car begins rolling again, automatically activating its turn signal as we make a right.

Over our brief route the Fusion's computer control system smoothly handles a variety of different situations that human drivers take for granted: It stops at red lights and stop signs. It yields to another vehicle at a four-way stop sign. And it loops back into the parking lot, gliding to a stop precisely where we had first climbed aboard.

Read More: Google Says Its Self-Driving Cars Got Into a Minor Accident

"We're being as conservative as possible," explains Schuyler Cohen, a supervisor on the Ford autonomous vehicle program. That means obeying every law to an almost painful degree.

The sign says 25 mph, that's as fast as the Fusion prototype will go, even if everyone else does 30 and there's a line of cars stacking up behind it. The lights are blinking at the crosswalk, the Fusion will wait until they stop, even if there's no pedestrians to be seen.

It's a logical approach when you're in the development phase of technology that could be quite dangerous if not properly programmed. Google has already experienced more than a dozen collisions with its own autonomous vehicle prototypes - though it was blamed for only one - and there are two federal investigations underway involving the semi-autonomous Autopilot system used by Tesla that has been blamed for a fatal crash in May.

These sensors are designed never to blink - or be distracted by smartphone calls and texts, or screaming children in the back seat.

One challenge is getting all those sensors to work nicely together. Another is writing software code capable of navigating all the situations human drivers deal with every day without breaking a sweat - as well as the occasional emergency.

According to Cohen, Ford's fleet of Fusion prototypes is routinely running on public roads in Michigan, Nevada, California and other parts of the country. Backup operators like Hoellenbauer go along for the ride and, if necessary, take control when the car runs into a problem. The automaker may then write new code or try to recreate the situation on its own test track or the new MCity autonomous vehicle facility the University of Michigan has set up near its campus in Ann Arbor.

The improvements are coming fast, says Ford's global product development director, Raj Nair. A new generation of LIDAR "pucks" will be put into operation before year-end. They'll be smaller, cheaper and won't spin like the current models. They'll also be able to map the road around the vehicle out to distances of more than 600 feet, and to resolutions precise enough to spot a small animal or debris on the road.

Updates to software will allow the vehicle to drive more like a human, even if that means a little over the speed limit to maintain the pace of traffic. But just like a camera, these sensors are designed never to blink - or be distracted by smartphone calls and texts, or screaming children in the back seat.

That's why Mark Rosekind, the head of the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration, predicts that autonomous vehicles could eventually eliminate highway fatalities in the U.S. Other experts think that's a stretch but the general consensus is that there will be a huge reduction in deaths and injuries, even while traffic congestion is reduced significantly.

For its part, Ford plans to skip directly to driverless vehicles, eliminating entirely the need to have backup drivers ready to take control in an emergency. It believes it can avoid those problems - and Nair contends that humans simply couldn't react quickly enough, anyway.

Read More: Ford Will Offer Driverless Tech to Consumers by 2025

Ford plans to put its first driverless model - which may eliminate traditional steering wheel and pedals - by 2021. It will target ride-sharing and delivery fleets first. Sales to retail customers could begin by 2025, CEO Mark Fields revealed this week.

Meanwhile, the automaker plans to start fielding more and more prototypes to give developers like Cohen and Hoellenbauer more opportunities to tweak both hardware and software. By 2018, the maker will begin using the technology for the shuttles it runs around its sprawling Dearborn campus.

There are still plenty of skeptics, especially when it comes to fully driverless vehicles, but even a brief ride in one of these prototypes shows just how quickly a technology long the stuff of science fiction is moving closer and closer to becoming an everyday reality.