“Under the cover of night,” Ford’s press release begins, “a Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle with no headlights on navigated along lonely desert roads, performing a task that would be perilous for a human driver.” It’s not quite “dark and stormy night”-level stuff, but it’s close.
The drama serves a purpose. For one, this stunt helps Ford illustrate how LiDAR works.
The release explains that LiDAR is an active sensor that measures by shooting out lasers, which can work in the absence of natural light. They also explain why this is very, very important to autonomous vehicles: “Thanks to LiDAR,” Ford writes, “the test cars aren’t reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt. In fact, LiDAR allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day.”
Beyond any value the stunt might have, it sounds like a legitimately cool experience (if a little terrifying).
For the actual test, Ford engineers donned night-vision goggles and sent the Fusion out to the desert in the dark in the middle of the night. These goggles enabled them to see the LiDAR sensor’s grid of infrared laser beams projected around the vehicle as it zipped through the night.
That laser show was likely hidden from the poor sap who had to ride *inside* the car. “Inside the car, I could feel it moving, but when I looked out the window, I saw only darkness,” describes Wayne Williams, a Ford research scientist and engineer. “As I rode in the back seat, I was following the car’s progression in real time using computer monitoring. Sure enough, it stayed precisely on track along those winding roads.”
To let LiDAR drive you through total darkness is the ultimate act of trust in the technology, and one I’m not sure I would take.