Ford Takes on the Challenge of “Snowtonomous” Driving

By: Cliff Ritter on January 21, 2016

The reinvention of Ford continues with the recent announcement that they’ve developed and begun testing autonomous driving technology that works in snowy conditions, a first for the auto industry.

Not long ago, Ford was far from being perceived as an industry innovator, but things couldn’t be more different this year. Their commitment to developing auto-related tech landed them a whole host of headlines at CES 2016 and then the Detroit Auto Show, and the year’s only begun.

Getting self-driving tech to work in wintry conditions is the next important step towards wide adoption of the technology, especially for the Canadian market. Unlike a driver, who can use their imagination and caution to drive on a road obscured by snow, currently developed sensors have no capability to deal with a lack of sight.

These sensors use LiDAR, which functions like RADAR except it uses laser light to instantly and accurately pinpoint its location on the road instead of radio waves. While LiDAR is by far the most accurate detection technology we have, it has a limitation in that it can only detect what can be seen.

So how is Ford overcoming this limitation? It’s simple really. Just like a human using past experience with roads to navigate during unfavourable conditions, Ford’s vehicles will store “useful information about the 3D environment around the car, allowing the vehicle to localize even with a blanket of snow covering the ground.” That means that once it navigates a given route in favourable conditions, it will then be able to use the surrounding environment to navigate in the event the ground is not visible.

It’s a sensible solution, and while it is still being tested, Ford seemed positive about how well the solution works. Now what would be really interesting is if route information was shared through the cloud so that even if someone were driving a route for the first time, the car could handle it because someone else mapped it before. Considering Ford’s recent announcement of partnering with IBM to develop a cloud-based system, it wouldn’t surprise me if someone over at Ford was thinking the exact same thing.