The idea of a self-driving car is not new, it’s been the talk of the tech and motoring worlds for a few years now, many more depending on how deep you are in those worlds. But just how real is it? How the hell does it work? And would you trust one? The answers to all these questions became a lot clearer for me two hours ago when I drove rode in a Ford Autonomous Vehicle.

This is not an every-day occurrence. Google, Volvo, Audi, Ford – whoever you name that may or may not be working on this technology aren’t letting people jump in the back seat for fun day-in and day-out. Today, as part of Ford’s 6th annual “Further with Ford” event I got to do just that.

Ford have a fleet of Autonomous Vehicles (or Self-Driving cars if you like that better). By 2017 they say they’ll have the largest fleet of any company in the world. And they are all in on this too. It’s not a side project, it’s not a small thing, Chairman Bill Ford – the great-grandson of Henry Ford himself is talking about it, as is CEO Mark Fields.

And it’s not just a top-down approach, they’ve set a date. By 2021 Ford will be producing self-driving cars. Not one or two of them, they mean high-volume production.

How does it work?

The vehicles currently part of Ford’s Autonomous fleet are Ford Fusions. These are what we call the Mondeo. Inside, it seems just like any other Mondeo, but in the boot there is a huge set of computers and tech, that’s the brains of the operation.

On the roof, you’ll clearly notice the cameras and sensors. These are the eyes and ears of the Autonomous car. A range of six different technologies combine to give the car a full understanding of the world around it.

LiDar, short and long-range radar, high resolution camera, as well as stereo and mono camera all combine to provide what is nothing short of impressive when it comes to what the car “sees”.

Then, underneath, the Autonomous Vehicle platform ford have developed interacts with the steering, engine and brakes to do the leg work.

Critically, the car must operate on “known” roads. Advanced mapping is done on the area to be used by the vehicle/s, allowing that map to then interact with the real-time technology in the car to determine within centimetres where the car is on the road.

GPS is used to co-ordinate broadly the location on startup, but after that, it’s all about the mapping software and systems.

The sensors are constantly looking around at every object and every movement to determine what’s happening, and react to real-time situations.

What happens inside?

Inside the car – nothing much:)

Right now, if you happen to see one of these driving in and near the Ford Campus in Dearborn, you’ll see two Ford Engineers in the vehicle.

The “driver” is there for safety. Regulations don’t yet allow Ford to send the cars out on their own, plus there is loads more development to do. He or she has the ability to take over the driving, or bypass the automation at any time.


In the passenger seat up front is another engineer. A laptop is all they need to plug into the car’s automation systems and see in absolutely real-time the 3D modelling of things going on around them. This is, to be clear, the most impressive thing I’ve seen in a motor vehicle in my life.

Looking at the video below, you’d think all that fancy colour coding of trees, people and cars was done in some advanced graphics program. Nope. That’s exactly what the engineers can see in real-time inside the vehicle.

This means every object can be observed by the human eye and computer eye to ensure it is validated and responded to correctly.

What about those ugly sensors on the roof?

Yeah, that’s not going to sell well is it? Those silver cylinders on the roof are Velodynes. LiDar sensors that spin at speed to keep a constant ‘eye’ on things around them. Plus there are other radar and camera’s too.

Ford is working on their next generation Autonomous Vehicle fleet, which is in production right now, and all that gear will likely relocate to a hockey-puck sized object/sensor on the front A-pillars of the vehicle (either side of the windscreen) above the rear-view mirrors.

As for where they will be in a final production car, hard to say, but if it’s a hamburger sized object on the roof, or something built into the mirrors or boot – it won’t be what you see today.

Will the 2021 car have a steering wheel?

Nope. No accelerator either. Ford CEO Mark Fields was very clear that the production Autonomous Car would not have a “wheel or gas pedal”.

He wasn’t drawn on if there would be any pedal at all (perhaps a brake for emergenices?).

The point being, in just five years from now, the car of the future will arrive and it will not just be smarter, it will be very, very different.

What’s it like to be a passenger?

First up, you’ve got to remember that sitting in the back seat of a self-driving car, with two people sitting in the front, one behind the wheel and one as a passenger – is not anywhere near as daunting as it might be if the front seats were empty.

That said, you soon realise that the driver isn’t touching a thing, he’s just the responsible adult in the car:)

It doesn’t feel entirely like a normal car-ride, because you never exceed the speed limit at all, the car is precise around corners and very cautious approaching intersections.

In some way, it felt like being in the back seat of a car driven by an experienced learner driver whose Dad is watching every movement from the passenger seat.

Can it really handle unpredictable situations?

Yep, for now, it’s doing a great job. The short 10 minute circuit we rode on was part of the Ford Campus, which is a huge place. But it was not a staged drive. These are open roads, people driving all over the place going this way and that as if in any normal town.

We encountered a pedestrian (who was staged to be there so we could see it) and it stopped as it should having recognised the crossing first and the person also.

But then later in another area a man was walking through a walkway toward the road. It seemed we might make it through the intersection before he arrived on the curb, but then it was close. Very close. In the end, as if to err on the side of Caution, the car slowed and stopped.

The man then waved us on. Difficult for the car to “see” that, yet it observed him standing still and continued on its way.

In another example of over cautiousness, there was another journo crouched on the curb taking photos as we arrived back at the starting point. The car didn’t like this, not one bit. But again, he stayed still or stepped back and the car proceeded.

At a four-way intersection with lights and people turning across in front, the car waited until it had a clear open vision of cars and navigated it perfectly – that was the moment that really put my heart in my mouth – but it was never an issue.

Is this really the future of motoring?

Yes. Never more than now do I see that.

Perhaps before I’ve been sceptical. Perhaps before I thought it was all ‘testing and technology’, but Ford perhaps more than anyone have put a line in the sand now. 2021. That’s the year they will produce in volume their first Autonomous Vehicles. And just as Henry Ford did with vehicle production way back when, this will be a new future.

Not for every car. Not yet. The average age of vehicles on American Roads is 10 years, so imagine how many decades it might be before we come close to replacing those.

Plus, some of us still love to drive.

The fact is, for taxi’s and personal transport, self-driving cars are the obvious future. The most expensive part of the service is not the car, the petrol or the wear and tear. It’s the driver. Remove that and we’re talking a new economy. That is of course why so many are betting on the future of Ride sharing services like Uber.

Your daily commute might be your own self-driving car, or it might be a shared car within your street or suburb. While your own car is for country drives or road-trips?

What’s not clear is who will lead that race. Apple, Google, Uber, Tesla, Ford, Mercedes, BMW, Volvo, the list goes on.

The interesting thing here is that companies like Ford or Volvo and other “traditional” car companies have the scale. They can mass produce, they can take known technology and enhance it. Others are starting from scratch.

Whatever the case, the next 10-15 years of motor vehicle development will be some of the most critical in history.

Trevor Long travelled to Detroit as a guest of Ford Australia and the Ford Motor Company – click here for full details of commercial interests and disclosures