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Ford gave its autonomous Fusion Hybrid better eyes, and a bigger brain

As Ford works to put a self-driving car into production in 2021, the Fusion Hybrid sedan has been its main test bed for the technology. Ford currently rosters a fleet of modified Fusion Hybrids converted into prototype autonomous vehicles, and they are about to get an upgrade.

Ford’s next-generation autonomous Fusion Hybrid prototype will appear at CES 2017 and the 2017 Detroit Auto Show in the coming weeks. The new cars will feature numerous improvements to autonomous-driving hardware, a Ford blog post said. They will likely be based on the updated Fusion Hybrid that debuted for the 2017 model year.

The new autonomous-driving test vehicles will feature upgraded computer hardware, allowing for greater processing power. Placement of the sensors has also been changed to allow cars to “see” better. The upgraded array of sensors includes three cameras mounted on two racks on top of the roof, a forward-facing camera mounted under the windshield, short- and long-range radar units, and two lidar units, which stick out of the A-pillars like insect antennae.

More: Going for a ride in Ford’s self-driving car

The lidar units have a new, more streamlined design, and a more targeted field of vision, according to Ford. This allows the Fusion Hybrid to get by with two lidar units instead of the previous four. Data from sensors is compared to a 3D map of the environment, allowing the car to orient itself. All of these sensors, and the computers that make up the car’s “brain,” use a lot of electricity, which is why Ford modifies Fusions Hybrids instead of non-hybrid models. The hybrids’ high-voltage battery pack can provide all of the juice the autonomous-driving system needs.

Ford has been testing the current version of its autonomous Fusion Hybrid since 2013, and earlier this year it increased the fleet from 10 cars to 30. The self-driving sedans have been tested on closed courses as well as on public roads in Arizona, California, and Michigan. In 2017, Ford plans to triple the test fleet to 90 cars.

The test program will lay the groundwork for Ford’s planned launch of a high-volume fully autonomous car in 2021. The car will not have a steering wheel or pedals, and will be built specifically for ridesharing services.