Never one to shy away from discussing the technical side of things, Ford Motor Company CEO Mark Fields recently sat down with MIT Technology Review for an enlightening conversation about the automaker’s efforts to bring an autonomous (or “self-driving”) car to market. The automaker only recently announced a threefold increase in the size of its autonomous vehicle testing fleet, at the same time reiterating its goal of producing a working, self-driving model by the end of the decade.
When Technology Review asked what Ford had learned so far in the time that it’s been testing and developing self-driving car prototypes, Mark Fields responded simply, “that there are a lot of different variables. When you originally think you have all the bases covered, you realize there are probably multitudes more that you need to cover.”
As an example, Mr. Fields cited the relatively impaired performance of LIDAR sensors in certain types of weather. “When you look at some of the capabilities of the cameras and the sonars and the sensors, some have difficulty operating, for example, in freezing rain or snow or inclement conditions, and we’ve had to work through some of those things,” said the executive. He went on to say that Ford is coping with that issue by supplementing with SONAR and cameras, although he wouldn’t quite label those other systems “redundant.”
Of course, beyond hardware limitations such as this, there are myriad situational difficulties – both foreseeable and not – that a self-driving car’s programming will have to overcome. Mark Fields cites some fairly mundane ones, such as coming to a crosswalk: “When you’re trying to cross the street, if there’s no light, if you’re the pedestrian, you want to look to make sure the vehicle isn’t creeping forward,” he said. “You want to make eye contact. So I think we have to think through that.”
Conversely, other contexts call for different vehicle behavior. Mark Fields: “Let’s say you’re at a four-way stop. The rule is whoever gets there first and stops can go. But as you know, people don’t always follow the law. So one of the things is how would we program into the vehicle that when you come to a four-way stop that you can actually start creeping forward a bit to signal to the other cars that you’re going through.”
Truth be told, there are countless scenarios we encounter on the road every day which demand the sort of on-the-spot, critical decision-making that largely defines human cognition. Such critical-thinking is rather beyond the capabilities of even our best computers. The question thus becomes: when complex scenarios arrive, can programming ever sufficiently replace the human brain?
We’re sure to find out in the coming years. For Ford’s part, CEO Mark Fields restated the company’s position that it wants to “make sure [the autonomous car] works, it’s safe, and also it’s accessible to everyone, and not just folks that can afford luxury cars.”