At Ford’s Development Centre in Dearborn, Michigan, as I stood before the car that might one day make my job irrelevant, I was honestly surprised that it didn’t look like much. It was a stock Ford Fusion, with a hybrid drivetrain and all, but other than some extra stuff on the roof, there was nothing special about the car – it certainly wasn’t something from Transformers.
The ‘stuff’ on the roof – well, that was science fiction a decade ago. As James McBride, the head of Ford’s autonomous vehicle development program explained, all this began thanks to a DARPA project in 2004. That, by the way, is the United States’ Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, the place where everything from space travel to the internet really started. DARPA, as McBride explained, was told by the US Congress that fewer American soldiers should be exposed to harm, and as a result, we got things like the Predator drone – and this Ford Fusion, and Google’s self-driving car. As for an autonomous M1 Abrams tank, I don’t know, but the Americans probably have one somewhere.
There was a Ford engineer behind the wheel, his hands off the wheel and feet off the pedals, and another on the front passenger seat with a laptop as I sat in the car, and off we went around Dearborn. To note, these were public roads, with traffic lights, crosswalks, other cars with drivers and pedestrians who had no idea that an autonomous car was on the road.
Although the contraption on the roof gave the car away, there were no other indicators that the vehicle we were in was driving itself – no flashing lights, no high-visibility strips, nothing. While the route was pre-programmed, the car stopped at ‘Stop’ signs, waited for pedestrians at crosswalks, gave turn indicators (Delhi drivers, please note) and was generally very well behaved. Then, it impressed me greatly when it took a left turn.
In America, they drive on the other side of the road, so a left turn crosses traffic. In Dearborn, there are no left-turn signals – drivers usually wait for a gap in the traffic before turning. If there is oncoming traffic also turning left, visibility is reduced for the sensors in the car, as it would be for a driver. Impressively, the car waited for a gap in traffic and safely judged the speed of oncoming traffic before it made this turn.
While it was a bit conservative, in certain cases pedestrians would have waited for the car to pass. In one case, where a couple of ladies were talking on the kerb, the car waited, because it was not sure if they would cross the road, although as a human you could clearly decipher that they wouldn’t. The car also faithfully followed the 30-mile per hour speed limit on open roads and 15-mile per hour limit in parts of the Ford campus, while human drivers clearly took the speed limit more as a suggestion.
The fact that I was riding in a robot was the purview of Hollywood not so long ago, but was it so weird? Planes can pretty much fly themselves from gate to gate, and in large metropolitan Metro systems such as in Paris, trains are fully automated, without a driver on board. In cars as well, automated cruise control systems with radar for highways is nothing new. However, these all operate in more controlled and less populated environments. In a city, an autonomous car has to deal with traffic and pedestrians, and that, even in well-behaved Mid-Western America, is unpredictable.
Modern cars have several multiples of the computing power of Apollo 11, but I did note Ford’s Chief Technology Officer Raj Nair’s statement the day before our ride, where he commented that we take “our visual sensors, our auditory sensors and our processing unit for granted, but it is only when you try and build a new one that you realise how complex they really are.” Ford has committed to have in mass-production autonomous cars by 2021, operating as shuttles and taxis in urban environments. Autonomous vehicles will take longer to conquer the great outdoors.
Personally, despite a Ford survey saying that 84 per cent of Indian car owners or potential buyers show a preference for autonomous cars (more than double that of Americans), I believe it will be a while before one can handle the chaos of Dadar, or negotiate the Silk Board Junction. Yet, the tremendous progress that has been made in just over a decade is totally mind-blowing. Maybe these things will come to India one day, but not too soon, hopefully – I do like my day job of driving nice cars.