2017 will go down as the year that autonomous cars swarm the roads in certain states to test and refine the technology. Google is expanding its stable of self-driving test vehicles via deals with Fiat Chrysler and now Honda, while Uber launched a fleet of autonomous Ford Fusions in Pittsburgh earlier this year and is expanding to Arizona after running afoul of the law in California. And GM announced plans this month to immediately start testing autonomous Chevy Bolts on roads around Detroit after dispatching 40 of the self-driving EVs to San Francisco and Scottsdale, Arizona for similar purposes.
Adding to this growing pack of self-driving guinea pigs on public roads, Ford revealed today that it’s not only introducing its latest Fusion Hybrid Autonomous Development Vehicle, but the Dearborn-based automaker is tripling the size of its fleet size—again.
At CES 2106, Ford announced it was adding 20 first-generation autonomous Fusion Hybrids to an original fleet of 10 introduced in late 2013, for a total of 30 test vehicles. Ford plans to triple that number again in 2017, “going from 30 to 90 total vehicles,” spokesman Alan Hall said in an email. He added that the new autonomous Fusion Hybrids will be on display next week at CES in Las Vegas and the following week at the North American International Auto Show in Detroit.
Chris Brewer, chief program engineer for Ford Autonomous Vehicle Development, said in a blog post that the new vehicles employ the previous platform, “but up the processing power with new computer hardware” and that the “electrical controls are closer to production-ready. New LiDAR sensors have a sleeker design and more targeted field of vision, which enables the car to now use just two sensors rather than four, while still getting just as much data,” Brewer added.
Ford’s first-generation autonomous test vehicles have four lidar sensors arrayed on a roof rack rail, while on the latest version they’re attached to the car’s A pillars. “These new sensors possess a sensing range roughly the length of two football fields in every direction,” Brewer noted.
The lidar sensors are augmented by three cameras installed on a roof rack and a forward-facing camera mounted under the windshield that can further identify objects detected by lidar and read traffic signs and lights. Short- and long-range radar sensors help the car “see” objects through heavy rain, fog and snow and also detect moving objects.
Since massive computational power is required to process the sensor data, the trunk of each Fusion Hybrid holds “the equivalent of several high-end computers” that “generate 1 terabyte of data an hour – more than the average person would use in mobile- phone data in 45 years,” according to Brewer. This also requires specialized software that Ford says it developed in-house.
Last August Ford announced that it plans to mass produce fully autonomous vehicles sans a steering wheel or gas and brake pedals by 2021 for ride-sharing and ride-hailing services. Brewer added that the “new development vehicle brings Ford a step closer” to this goal, although the new self-driving Fusion Hybrids will still have a steering wheel and pedals.
Brewer said that Ford’s “expanded fleet is accelerating our real-world testing already taking place on the roads in Michigan, California and Arizona.” The 90 self-driving Ford Fusion Hybrids will also significantly add to the number of autonomous test vehicles already on the road in those states, and speed up the development of the technology.
Originally published by Forbes.com