February 12, 2014
Article and photos by Jacob Black
It’s just a balloon. But it’s a really big balloon. And it looks a lot like a Ford Transit van, and it is directly in front of me, stopped. I’m closing in on it at 80 km/h.
A red light flashes in the screen, loud beeping reaches a crescendo in my ears, my passengers and I brace… and suddenly, I’m alongside the Ford Transballoon. The Ford Focus underneath me has realized I’m not reacting and taken matters into its own hands. Within milliseconds the car has come alive, scything left and then braking, all by itself.
It is a frightening and humbling experience to “drive” a car with capabilities like this. Humbling, because I’m in awe of what it could do, humbling because the steering inputs and braking inputs are so precise that I myself could never match them – the car is better at avoiding the crash than I am. Frightening because if the car can do all of those things through electronics, what happens if the car decides to do something you don’t want it to? Or worse, what if someone hacks your car? Or worse again, what if governments gain the ability to take control over every single car on the road anytime they like?
Ford Autonomous Driving. Click image to enlarge
The truth is those questions all need to be answered, and Ford’s think tanks are doing just that, as we speak. It’s questions like those, and others that are being thrashed out by lawmakers, policy makers and automotive manufacturers in a mad scramble to catch up to the capability that is almost already here.
The automatic collision avoidance is just one part of a puzzle that Ford, and every other brand, is not-so-slowly putting together – a move towards autonomous driving. Not long after this session, we tried Ford’s adaptive cruise control systems and active lane-keeping systems, successfully completing a loop of the Dearborn test oval behind another car using just those systems. It was a little bit odd testing out adaptive cruise-control on the track, especially given we have cars with full start-stop abilities on the road already – Mercedes-Benz, BMW for example – but this is the test ground where Ford is working on their own version. It’s not a case of their system not being able to do it – we were shown that it actually can – but rather that the potential legal minefield if one of those systems is relied on by say, an idiot, is off-putting.