Autonomous driving is the hottest topic in the car world right now, but like anything else, it has to start somewhere. For Jim McBride, Ford’s technical leader for autonomous vehicles, it started back in 2004 when he started exploring how advanced robotics and computer science could makes cars smarter and safer. Little did he know, he was laying the building blocks for vehicles that could drive themselves.
Fast forward to 2017 and CES is packed with self-driving demonstrations, panel discussions, and futuristic prototypes that will blow your mind. McBride sees the accelerated development of driverless tech as a necessity in the automotive space, both in a competitive sense and a humanitarian one. Put simply, if you don’t have a driverless option that can enhances mobility and safety in 2017, you’re falling behind.
That said, not all self-driving cars are created equal. There are five different levels of autonomy as defined by the Society of Automotive Engineers, and Ford has been vocal about its intention to skip from Level 2 — where the car operates itself in some conditions but the driver must remain alert — straight to Level 4, which is full autonomy outside of extreme conditions. This is due to the gray area that exists in Level 3, where the car is often in full command but may hand over the controls to the human at any time.
To reach Level 4, Ford has invested heavily in lidar technology, which uses lasers to accurately scan the environment even in harsh weather. McBride has a background in physics — specifically in lasers and optics — but he admits that automakers must not put all their eggs in one basket. Driverless cars need cameras, ultrasonic sensors, and other measuring devices to make sure every inch of the road ahead is mapped.
For more from McBride, including his comments on how Amazon’s Alexa can improve the driving experience, check out the full interview above.