Ford reveals the vehicle destined for its autonomous-car services

Ford has unveiled its fourth-generation autonomous test vehicle as it moves toward the launch of commercial services using the technology.

Up to now, it has been using a modified Fusion Hybrid sedan to test its autonomous technology, but the company is switching to a Ford Escape Hybrid SUV with a view to using the vehicle for services such as ridesharing or delivery.

“With our fourth-generation test vehicle, we have everything we need from a vehicle to stand up our self-driving service,” the U.S. automaker said in a blog post announcing its latest move in the autonomous-car space. “Everything we learn while using them can be channeled directly into our self-driving service as soon as it starts serving customers.”

Ford’s autonomous Escape vehicle features an upgraded sensing suite with more advanced lidar, higher resolution cameras, and improved radar sensors.

Of course, to ensure that the sensing suite can “see” the world clearly, it has to be designed in a way to deflect bugs and dirt, and also include a self-cleaning system for when deflection efforts fail. Ford says its engineers have made significant improvements in this area with the use of concealed forced-air cleaning chambers that surround the camera lenses and lidar sensors, and by adding more spray nozzles with greater pressure for faster cleaning.

The autonomous Escape Hybrid also comes with increased electrification capability for more efficient power delivery to the vehicle’s enhanced computing systems.

Ford will put its new vehicle on the road this month, though it will also continue to conduct testing using its existing fleet of 100 or so Fusion Hybrid vehicles.

The Michigan-based car giant plans to launch commercial services in 2022, a year later than originally planned due to disruption caused by the coronavirus pandemic.

Ford invested $1 billion in self-driving specialist Argo AI in 2017 to help it realize its ambition of launching autonomous services. The company has already conducted trials in Miami, Florida, using its self-driving cars for delivery services in partnership with Postmates.

Market leader Waymo, which emerged from Google’s long-running self-driving program, has been trialing ridesharing services using autonomous Chrysler Pacifica Hybrid minivans in parts of Phoenix, Arizona, since 2018, with some of its vehicles operating without a backup driver behind the wheel.

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