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Bad weather no obstacle to the connected car

Ford snow sensors

© Ford Motor Company

  • Ford testing autonomous vehicles in blizzard conditions
  • Four-element LiDAR system collects 600GB of data per hour
  • 2.8m laser points per second used to create 3D maps
  • So will we now see collaboration between car makers and telecoms?

The connected car is snow joke (excuse the pun), yet if the future of transport is autonomous vehicles, then they had better be able to cope with extreme driving conditions – such as snow blizzards – not just the sunny streets of Mountain View, California. Luckily, being based in the northern state of Michigan, the Ford Motor Company knows a thing or two about snow.

Ford’s autonomous research vehicle, which is based on a Ford Fusion Hybrid, has been out and about in blizzard conditions and lived to tell the tale. The company says it is the first car manufacturer to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in the snow.

The company's winter weather road testing takes place in Michigan, including at Mcity – a 32-acre, real-world driving environment based at the University of Michigan. Ford’s testing on this full-scale simulated urban campus is aimed at supporting the company’s aim to learn about and advance the emerging field of autonomous driving.

Ford this week revealed some of the aspects of its technology that allows for autonomous driving in extreme conditions.

At the heart of its approach is LiDAR – a surveying technique that uses lasers to measure distances. Ford uses LiDAR to create high-resolution 3D maps of roads and the surrounding areas, which are created when conditions are clear. It uses four LiDAR scanners that generate 2.8 million laser points per second, creating a map that serves as a baseline for identifying the car’s position when driving in autonomous mode. So when the weather turns bad, and the road and verges are covered in snow, the autonomous car can use the LiDAR sensors to scan the environment in real time to locate itself within the pre-mapped area.

It’s not just the roads and verges that are scanned and stored though, the process also collects and analyses a diverse set of data about the road and surrounding landmarks – such as signs, buildings, trees and other features. One car collects up to 600GB of LiDAR data per hour. In addition, Ford says its LiDAR sensors are sensitive enough to detect falling snowflakes or raindrops, returning the false impression that there’s an object in the way. The next step was to work with researchers at the University of Michigan to create algorithms to let the car know that these readings are not of physical objects, such as people or other vehicles, and instruct the car to drive through them. The LiDAR is also sensitive enough to accurately place the vehicle within a 3D scanned map to within a centimetre, rather than the several metres associated with GPS.

In addition to LiDAR sensors, Ford uses cameras and radar to monitor the environment around the vehicle, with the data generated from all of those sensors combined in a process it calls sensor fusion. This process means that one inactive sensor – perhaps caused by ice or dirt build-up on a sensor lens – does not necessarily prevent autonomous driving. Ford is currently working on self-cleaning and defogging measures to improve reliability.

The need for 5G

Of course, all of the above is in-car based, with perhaps some periodic map updates needing to be installed. To truly achieve autonomous driving there needs to be real-time communication with other vehicles, places, people and databases. This requires high reliability and extremely low latency (as low as 1ms), and will only come from 5G networks supported by mobile edge computing. It also needs the close cooperation between the telecoms industry and the automotive industry (which has never happened before), and that cooperation needs to start right now, during the initial discussion of system requirements that will lead to the new 5G standards.

“I believe the auto industry will change more in the next five to 10 years than it has in the last 50,” Mary Barra, the CEO and Chairman of General Motors, told an audience at Davos this year.

This is why we at TelecomTV are so closely following the development of 5G and its associated technologies. It’s not just about more speed and capacity, it’s about enabling new business cases. The theme at Mobile World Congress this year was “Mobile is Everything”. We disagree. It won’t be long before the correct slogan is “Mobile in Everything”, where mobile moves away from being a standalone industry into becoming a crucial service layer in multiple different industries.

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