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Here's how Ford, a 100-year-old car company, is paving the way for autonomous driving

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As companies from Apple to Tesla race to develop autonomous cars, auto industry titans like Ford are ramping up production.

The iconic car brand is slated to unveil its autonomous vehicle (AV) line in 2021. But Ford isn't the only legacy automaker gunning to put driverless cars on the road. The U.S. Transportation Department this summer gave self-driving vehicles a green light, and brands like General Motors, Toyota, Audi and Volvo, to name a few, are already building out their own lines.

In fact, shortly after the announcement, GM and Cruise (the startup GM scooped up last year) revealed they are ready to make their first big push into mass producing self-driving cars. As Circa reported when Transportation Secretary Elaine Chao introduced the new guidelines, titled "A Vision For Safety 2.0," these guidelines cut down the original regulations and set "leaner regulations on the industry in an effort to encourage innovation."

Ford, Helen Kourous, Natalia Angulo-Hinkson
Helen Kourous is a research engineer in Ford's autonomous vehicles research group. And this is a 3D view of what the driverless cars are picking up with their sensors. (Circa)

At Ford, research engineers like Helen Kourous are busy coding, building and testing out the latest AV models.

"The inspiration for innovation for me is kind of trying to mimic how good the human brain is, how good our eyes and our brain and our reflexes are at driving," Kourous, who works in Ford's Autonomous Vehicles Research Group, told Circa. "I think we sort of take for granted how good we are at that and how hard it is to program a computer to do the tasks we're doing while we're driving."

When you walk into Ford's AV factory you immediately think, "This is far from a traditional auto plant." The driverless car unit is more of a tech lab, and it's easy to geek out there.

"The sensors are what you see first," Kourous said, explaining that "these are invisible laser beams that are sweeping the surrounding area, painting a very dense 3D map of our surroundings."

Ford Autonomous Vehicle
Using sensors, Ford's autonomous vehicles paint a 3D view of the world around them. (Circa)

Driverless car advocates say beyond being able to gain back time lost commuting, one major benefit of these vehicles hitting the road is the possibility of reducing car accident injuries and fatalities. This was a point the Transportation Department was keen to emphasize, saying that currently 94 percent of car accidents are caused by human error.

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Consumer Technology Association (CTA) research says self-driving technology has the ability to reduce accidents caused by aggressive driving or driving under the influence by 82 percent, and prevent up to 90 percent of driving-related crashes. Driverless cars, therefore, could in theory reduce deaths by eliminating the primary cause of crashes.

Kourous echoes that belief and says reducing distracted driving is "really where the safety impact is going to occur" with driverless cars.

"The car is capable of being taught or being programmed to have any behavior we desire," Kourous explained. "It's up to us as a society and as engineers to optimize all those trade-offs that are always happening when you make decisions out in the real world."

Ford's AV's have sensors that can see in 360 degrees and see through rain up to 200 meters away. By 2021, the capability these cars will have to increase safety could be exponentially greater.

"All those sensors help us to do what we do as humans sort of without really thinking about it too much. Just understanding the environment around the vehicle," she said.

Ford Autonomous Vehicle Factory
A look inside Ford's autonomous vehicles factory. In the trunk is the computer commanding the driverless car. (Circa/Natalia Angulo-Hinkson)

When AV's hit the road, however, to test them out, riders will have to hail them because the first fleet will be limited to taxi and ride-sharing services. But that won't stop consumers who are already revved up for AV's. Almost two-thirds are ready to swap their current cars for self-driving models, according to the CTA.

"We think there’s readiness. In fact, I think insurance rates will be lower, car accidents will be greatly reduced. In a few years, it won’t make sense to not be interested in a self-driving car," Brian Markwalter, SVP of research and standards at CTA, told Circa.

Not to be left in the dust, tech giants like Google and Uber have also joined the race, fueling competition, but also sparking cooperation.

"Car companies now for the most part have some sort of office or R&D or something in Silicon Valley because they got to be part of that culture. You see acquisitions, and lots and lots of partnerships," Markwalter said.

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But it might be a while before AV's replace our existing car stock – especially when you talk about affordability. Just as the cost of owning an iPhone and an electric vehicle has sharply declined in the past couple years, when driverless cars become available to the public for purchase, they'll likely come at a steep price. But as technology improves and acceptance expands, that will drive down costs.

"When the first radars came out for automobiles, they were as big as a microwave oven and they cost $10,000. Now they're as small as a deck of cards and they cost $50 at volume," Kourous explained. As she sees it, "There's this thing called Moore's Law where computers keep getting more powerful, cheaper and smaller. We're going to leverage that with autonomous vehicles as well."

Companies are already experimenting with ways to democratize these vehicles. Ford, taking a ~different~ approach, even partnered with Virginia Tech's Transportation Institute to see how people would react to seeing a car on the road without a driver.

"It just feels like the car is exerting its muscles."
Helen Kourous, AV Research Engineer, Ford

Science and data and tech aside, as a human, what does it feel like to know you're riding in a robot-driven car?

"There's a little bit of awe and amazement at first and uncertainty... It just feels like the car is exerting its muscles. I don't know, I think it's a build up of trust," Kourous said.

See more related Circa articles:
This 23-year-old Ford engineer already has nine patents. Did we mention she doesn't drive?
Here's how Detroit Bikes is transforming America’s car capital into a bike town
Driverless cars got a green light from the Department of Transportation

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