It’s no secret that Ford Motor Company has drunk deep the self-driving car kool aid, and is hard at work developing its own fully-autonomous car for deployment in ride-hailing and rideshare fleets by 2021. That vehicle will be a “Level-4” self-driving car, constrained to well-mapped public roads within the boundaries of a single city.
Now, it seems the automaker is working on something a bit more free-roaming, as well. According to a patent application uncovered by the staff at Off-Road.com, Ford could be working on a system that would enable a future Ford off-road vehicle to detect, assess, and automatically traverse obstacles in the wild. The patent application essentially covers the decision-making logic of said system, granting it the ability to decide whether it can overcome a given obstacle, and how best to do it.
As you can see from the flowchart, Ford’s system would be equipped to appraise the obstacle (using some combination of a camera, LiDAR, RADAR, ultrasound, and/or GPS data), either preparing the active suspension to proceed, or advising the driver to seek an alternate route. Assuming its decision-making software decides the vehicle can traverse said obstacle, the vehicle can then further decide whether to allow human operation, and whether to allow humans in the vehicle at all while it proceeds. If, for instance, the vehicle determines a significant chance of roll-over, it could alert the passengers to exit before it attempts to continue.
Crucially, the patent application also outlines the possibility for a “Remote Device” which could be used to override the autonomous function, should the user ever figure the vehicle has gotten in over its head.
In all likelihood, arriving at a fully-autonomous vehicle that can perform in unmapped rural or off-road settings is much further off than something that can go Point A to Point B on public roads, but we still have to believe its coming. This patent application from Ford is proof that the Blue Oval is at least thinking ahead to such an eventuality.