Ford wants to send autonomous cars to driver’s ed

Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous night testing
What happens if your autonomous car flunks the self-driving test? Do you send it back to virtual driver’s ed? Racking up miles isn’t enough to certify self-driving cars; they must be successful in coping with a wide range of driving scenarios, according to Jim Buczkowski, Ford Research and Innovation director of electrical and electronics systems. He shared that opinion last week at a Seattle Metropolitan Chamber of Commerce breakfast meeting, as reported by GeekWire.

The Ford technologist was in the Seattle area to meet with Microsoft and Amazon to discuss cloud computing and Ford automotive developments. Ford partnered with Microsoft to work on the Azure cloud platform for connected car services. With cloud connectivity, for example, cars would automatically update to the latest software and owners would have a vehicle finder feature.

Ford is also working with Amazon to integrate Echo and Alexa with Ford’s SYNC. With this integration, cars and smart homes can tap into two-way communication and control. Imagine asking Alexa from the comfort of your den how much gas remains in your car. And while you’re out on the road, you tap a button on the steering wheel and use the SYNC voice command system to find out if you did in fact close the garage door.

Buczkowski’s role involves a wide range of technology. “My focus is on finding innovation to bring to the company … It can’t be simply about making more cars and trucks,” he said.

Regarding virtual driver’s licenses, Buczkowski said Ford’s plans include developing Level 4 autonomous vehicles capable of fully controlling a car in most but not all driving modes (the modes are specified and limited to the identified set). While he didn’t name other companies — think Tesla and Google, which both regularly mention miles covered by their cars in self-driving or autonomous modes — Buczkowski is more concerned with a car’s ability to handle scenarios than piling up miles.

“A lot of folks talk about how they’ve got 10 million, 100 million miles of cumulative time driving with something, an algorithm, whatever,” he said. “You do have to remember, though, that it’s really the scenarios. How many unique and different and important scenarios the system experiences versus how many miles. Driving five miles in the city, you can probably encounter 100 scenarios. Driving 100 miles on a freeway, you may encounter only two or three.”

Before a car model is certified to operate autonomously, the Ford exec believes the vehicle should successfully pass standardized testing that includes a specified range of scenarios. If it doesn’t pass, it has to have more training, just as the case is people who fail a driving test. The agency or organization in charge of certifying autonomous cars hasn’t yet been determined, but it could be the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration (NHTSA). Buczkowski doesn’t think any agency is ready to certify virtual drivers yet.

Concerned by the strain put on government agencies, specifically the NHTSA, to create guidelines and rules might be premature at this point, Buczkowski said, “There’s a lot of pressure to put regulations in place. Putting regulation policy in place without good knowledge results in bad policy — which can hurt, and not help.”

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