Autonomous vehicles are all very well. But at the moment they are only able to cope with certain weather conditions. Unlike human beings, automated vehicles relying on internet-connected road sensors are unable to see the road or what’s around them when everything is covered in a blanket of snow.
That is until now. Because Ford claims to be the first car maker to test autonomous vehicles in snow-covered environments. In order to navigate its snowy roads, the autonomous vehicles are equipped with high-resolution 3D maps, complete with information about the road and what’s around it. This includes road markings, signs, geography, landmarks and topography. This allows the vehicle to position itself and understand what is around it even when snow is covering the ground.
“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow. Weather isn’t perfect, and that’s why we’re testing autonomous vehicles in wintry conditions – for the roughly 70 percent of U.S. residents who live in snowy regions.”
Taking place in Michigan, including at Mcity (a 32-acre, full-scale simulated real-world urban environment at the University of Michigan), the winter testing uses bespoke, high-resolution 3D maps created especially for Ford. “Maps developed by other companies don’t always work in snow-covered landscapes,” said Ryan Eustice, associate professor at University of Michigan college of engineering.
“The maps we created with Ford contain useful information about the 3D environment around the car, allowing the vehicle to localise even with a blanket of snow covering the ground.”
An autonomous vehicle creates the maps while driving the test environment in favorable weather, with technologies automatically annotating features like traffic signs, trees and buildings. However, when the vehicle can’t see the ground, it detects above-ground landmarks to pinpoint itself on the map, and then subsequently uses the map to drive successfully in inclement conditions.
“The vehicle’s normal safety systems, like electronic stability control and traction control, which often are used on slippery winter roads, work in unison with the autonomous driving software,” said McBride. “We eventually want our autonomous vehicles to detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it’s safe to keep driving, and if so, for how long.”
You can see a video of Ford’s autonomous vehicle test in the snow here: