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3D maps ensure Ford’s autonomous cars won’t get snow blind

Self-driving cars are already becoming a familiar site in certain regions like Silicon Valley and the deserts of Nevada, but for autonomous vehicles to ever really go mainstream, they’ll have to handle a wide variety of conditions. Snow is one of the most challenging obstacles for human drivers, so can a machine do better?

Ford is finding out. It claims to be the first carmaker to test fully autonomous prototype vehicles in winter weather, something that usually isn’t hard to find around its Dearborn, Michigan, headquarters. Some of the testing takes place at the Mcity simulated city built by the University of Michigan for self-driving cars.

A growing cohort of carmakers, tech companies, and analysts believes self-driving cars will soon become available to the general public, but before that can happen, they need to be able to handle less-than-perfect weather conditions. Snow presents a problem because it limits the ability of the lidar sensors and cameras autonomous vehicles rely on to see lane markings, signs, and other cars.

Related: Renault and Nissan promises to sell autonomous vehicles by 2020

To solve that problem, Ford turned to incredibly detailed 3D maps, which include everything about a given stretch of road, right down to the signs and topography. This means if a car can’t see lane markings, and can detect above-ground landmarks and orient itself that way, according to Ford. The maps are created by having an autonomous vehicle drive a given stretch of road in clear weather conditions to collect the necessary data.

“We eventually want our autonomous vehicles to detect deteriorating conditions, decide whether it’s safe to keep driving, and if so, for how long,” said Ford autonomous-vehicle tech chief Jim McBride, noting that safety systems like stability control and traction control are already able to work in unison with an autonomous car’s control systems.

Winter-weather testing is part of a major push by Ford into autonomous-car research. At CES last week, the automaker announced that it is growing its fleet of Fusion Hybrid test vehicles to 30 cars, which it claims is the largest in the industry. It’s also expanding on-road testing, and hopes to eventually put a self-driving car on sale at an affordable price.