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

I’m sitting in the back of a Ford Fusion Hybrid, which is smoothly pulling away from a stop sign. Ordinarily, this experience wouldn’t be worth recording, but this is no ordinary Ford sedan.

That’s because this Fusion Hybrid can drive itself.

I’m at Ford’s headquarters in Dearborn, Michigan, getting a sample of what many believe is the future of the automobile: vehicles that can drive themselves without any human involvement. Ford is already committed to launching a fully-autonomous car for ride-sharing services by 2021.

But will autonomous cars be ready by then? And, somewhat more importantly, will we be ready for them?

The Ford scans well beyond crosswalks for approaching pedestrians, never tries to beat other cars at intersections, and always obeys the speed limit.

From the outside, except for the spinning lidar units on the roof that look like stubby antlers, the autonomous prototype looks like any other Fusion Hybrid. Ford chose this model because its electrical architecture can support all of the added autonomous systems. Lidar functions similar to radar, but uses light instead of radio waves. Along with radar and cameras, it forms a trifecta of sensors that the Ford (and most other self-driving cars) use to “see” the environment.

For this outing, though, that suite of sensors came with some backup in the form of a pair of engineers. One sat in the driver’s seat, his hands hovering around the steering wheel when the car is in autonomous mode. The other sat in the front passenger’s seat, eyes glued to a laptop showing readouts of the car’s various sensors. They could shut the autonomous system down at any moment if it decided to go all Skynet, or failed to notice a stop sign.

Related: No steering wheel, no pedals, no driver: Ford’s autonomous car is coming in 2021

One of the engineers pressed a button on the steering wheel, and a flash of the heads-up display confirmed that the car was now driving itself. I expected the jerky motions and heavy brake applications of a student driver, but car is remarkably smooth as it pulls out onto the road.

The route Ford laid out wouldn’t have taxed the skills of the average human driver. It consisted of a short loop around the carmaker’s Dearborn campus, with relatively little traffic and 25-mph speed limits. However, the self-driving car would still have to deal with unpredictability of a real-world environment, complete with other vehicles and pedestrians. The car was completely in control too; its handlers entered a destination, but it was up to the Fusion to pick a route and navigate it.

Ford autonomous car
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

A major point in the debate over self-driving cars is how they will make decisions that will potentially involve human lives. How would an autonomous car handle, say, a situation that requires it to either run over a pedestrian, or take some action that might harm its passengers, like swerving off the road? It’s a problem so complex that fellow automaker Toyota is convinced the only way to solve it is to develop artificial intelligence, something it’s collaborating with MIT and Stanford to do.

But Dr. Ken Washington—VP of Research and Advanced Engineering at Ford—has a much simpler answer. Self-driving cars will be so good at sensing their environment and taking note of potential dangers, that they will never encounter situations that require making life-or-death decisions, he claims.

The Fusion Hybrid may have manners that would make a driving instructor proud, but autonomous cars still have a long way to go.

“It’s our intent to observe and interpret [the environment] so you don’t run into scenarios like that,” he said, noting that the Fusion Hybrid prototype’s array of cameras and radar and lidar units can “see” much farther than a human eye. Ford has said its cars can drive through snow (which can limit the effectiveness of cameras and lidar), and even drive at night with no headlights.

Those capabilities mean the Fusion Hybrid had no problem spotting the tan Honda Accord inching out of a driveway ahead of us. The car brought itself to a complete stop until the Honda driver’s intentions were known, and set off again when it was clear that he was yielding the right of way. A human driver couldn’t have done any better.

In fact, the key to unlocking the much-ballyhooed safety benefits of autonomous cars, as well their acceptance by the public, may be how timidly they drive. The Ford is programmed to drive very conservatively: it scans not only crosswalks, but the areas around them for approaching pedestrians, never tries to beat other cars at intersections, and always obeys the speed limit. At intersections, the car waits patiently to determine what other vehicles will do, and it accelerates in the most languid way possible.

Ford autonomous car
Stephen Edelstein/Digital Trends

The Fusion Hybrid may have manners that would make a driving instructor proud, but autonomous cars still have a long way to go before they are ready for the general public. Before introducing its production autonomous car in 2021—which will be a purpose-built model with no steering wheel, brakes, or throttle—Ford plans to launch an autonomous shuttle service for its Dearborn employees, using a new generation of prototypes.

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

These cars will benefit from improved algorithms and a next-generation lidar unit, Ford’s Washington said. The new lidar will have double the scanning range of current units, which can detect objects at distances up to 80 meters (262 feet). The cars also have more to learn.

Washington said Ford has gradually programmed its cars to deal with different scenarios, but there are still some it hasn’t tackled. While he couldn’t provide any specific examples, during a speech at the same event as my test drive, Ford CEO Mark Fields said the cars need a substitute for the hand signals and eye contact human drivers use to communicate with each other.

Even if Ford manages to perfect the technology, it will still be awhile before you can buy your own self-driving car. The Blue Oval has one of the most aggressive autonomous-car development programs of any company, but it still only plans to use its robo-cars for ride sharing initially. It will then gather data before making the leap to consumer sales. But when autonomous Fords start plying city streets in 2021, should you hitch a ride in one?

My short ride in Ford’s self-driving car was completely drama free, but it’s worth noting that it took place at low speeds, in a relatively quiet area, and with a human being ready to take back control at a moment’s notice. Take away that safety net, and put one of these cars on, say, a busy freeway, and the experience might engender different feelings. Being a driver can be stressful sometimes, but that doesn’t mean being a passenger never will be.