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Putting the ‘Car’ in Self-Driving Cars

by Chris Brewer, Chief Program Engineer, Autonomous Vehicle Development, Ford Motor Company

As an automotive engineer, I’ve worked on a lot of cool vehicles over the last 20 years, including Explorer, Super Duty, F-150 and Transit. Each has a community of loyal owners and enthusiastic fans (yes, even the Transit van!).

But there is even more anticipation for my latest project, and that’s because it centers on a new technology — self-driving vehicles. As chief program engineer for Ford’s self-driving car development program, I lead teams in charge of planning, designing, engineering, testing and manufacturing a car with no steering wheel, gas or brake pedal.

This work is easily the most challenging of my career, and it may be the most important, as well. At Ford, we see self-driving cars as the next frontier in our 100-year-plus mission to make transportation accessible and affordable to all. That’s why we intend to begin delivering fully autonomous cars in 2021 to move people and goods in services like ride-sharing, ride-hailing and package delivery fleets. Between now and then, there remains a lot of work to be done, but there’s no team better prepared for the challenge.

As an engineer, I especially love a challenge that requires me to invent, and there’s a tremendous amount of inventing that needs to occur before we can bring self-driving cars to customers. At the same time, it’s important to realize the end product we are working toward is still a car. In addition to inventing the new technology this vehicle requires, we need to apply the same precision, innovation, rigor and efficiency to the design, engineering, testing and manufacturing processes as any other vehicle we build.

As outlined in my first blog post, the self-driving car is made up of two main components. The first is the virtual driver system, otherwise known as the software. The second is the autonomous vehicle platform, otherwise known as the hardware that encompasses all aspects of the physical vehicle. Think about it like you would a human being, in that a self-driving car needs to replicate the amazing sensing and decision-making capabilities each one of us has. So the virtual driver system serves as the brains and the autonomous vehicle platform acts as the body. As the accompanying graphic illustrates, components representing senses, nerves and muscles are also incorporated.

Contrary to what some might think, building an autonomous car isn’t as easy as putting sensors and a computer into an existing car. The vehicle’s physical components must be developed and engineered to work with the software, as hardware and software working together is what’s required to deliver the self-driving experience. The end result needs to be a high-quality, energy-efficient vehicle people trust to serve their needs — just like they do today.

Here’s one of the challenges we face: In today’s cars, if the power steering — the system that makes it easy to turn your steering wheel — stops working, a driver can still manually turn the wheel to steer the vehicle to the side of the road. But in our self-driving car of the future, there is no steering wheel, so we need to develop a way for the vehicle to steer itself should the power steering capability stop working. This is called a redundant mechanical system.

We also need to ensure the all-new components required for a self-driving car (LiDAR, camera and radar sensors, plus the computer that processes all the data) are ready for the rigors of the life of the automobile, which can sometimes mean hundreds of thousands of miles in extreme temperatures and harsh conditions. This is one of the biggest challenges we face, but also one of the most energizing from an engineering standpoint.

As chief program engineer for Ford’s self-driving vehicle, I’m responsible for leading the engineers working to solve these difficult questions. I serve as a bridge between the various teams, and I have the chance to work with our design and user experience teams who are crafting what the exterior and interior of our self-driving car will look like. I also get to work with our incredible manufacturing team members, who are planning and developing the systems required to produce autonomous vehicles to serve millions of customers. (Yep, there is invention required there, too!)

And I get to work with the team at Argo AI, an artificial intelligence company Ford recently announced it would invest $1 billion in to develop the virtual driver system for our fully autonomous vehicles. They understand how critical it is to work together to integrate the hardware and software systems to create a seamless experience our customers will enjoy.

This work is exciting, but at the same time our team fully realizes the tremendous responsibility we have to deliver a self-driving vehicle customers trust. We take our work and this responsibility very seriously. Using the same disciplined, robust processes we apply to the cars and trucks you drive today, we are working to develop the autonomous vehicle of the future.

Come to think about it, who better to develop a self-driving car than a company that’s been making cars for more than 100 years?

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