Ford, Toyota, Volkswagen Tout Plans to Add Connectivity and Autonomy to the Family Car

Connected cars have become an extension of the smart home, but OEMs are now focused on a far bigger tech challenge: enabling autonomous driving.
By Mary Catherine O'Connor
Jan 06, 2016

On Tuesday—press day at CES, the major consumer electronics show held each year in Las Vegas—carmakers made a number of announcements related to connected-car technologies.

Ford Grows Autonomous Driving Program, Announces Drone Experiment
Mark Fields, Ford Motor Co.'s president and CEO, described a range of autonomous-vehicle initiatives and discussed new approaches to mobility that the firm is testing as part of its year-old Smart Mobility research program. These included one involving drones and aimed at helping the United Nations Development Program respond to disasters.

Ford is collaborating with DJI, which develops software to operate unmanned aerial vehicles, or drones, and issues an open call to developers to create a means of using Ford SYNC AppLink and OpenXC (a voice-activated interface with the Ford SYNC infotainment system, and an open-source hardware and software SYNC interface, respectively) to support drone-to-vehicle communications.

The goal is to enable United Nations first-responders arriving at the scene of an earthquake or other disaster to quickly deploy a drone—from, say, the bed of a Ford F-150 pickup truck—in order to survey and map disaster zones. The drone would then redock in the truck bed autonomously, even if the F-150 had moved. The winning entrants will receive $100,000 to develop their proposal.

Fields also announced that Ford is tripling its test fleet of Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles, and is testing its virtual-driver software in both urban and suburban environments. The fleet, which is growing to 30 vehicles, operates in Arizona, California and Michigan.

The fleet is being equipped with a new LiDAR device from Velodyne, a manufacturer with which Ford has been working since its first autonomous prototype vehicle was developed in 2007. The new LiDAR unit, known as the Solid-State Hybrid Ultra PUCK Auto (so named for its hockey-puck shape) boosts the sensor's range by 200 meters (656 feet) and can be integrated into a car's side-view mirror. In press materials, Ford claims that Ultra Puck will "accelerate the development and validation of Ford's virtual-driver software, which serves as the decision-making brain that directs vehicle systems."

Ford's corporate messaging has, for the past five years, focused on the changing transportation landscape: how technology, such as electrification and autonomous driving, will change the way in which we drive, and how the growth of megacities and the rise of alternative transportation systems, such as car-sharing, will change how people move and whether they will own cars. Tuesday's press conference was no different.

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