In Brief

Ford tests self-driving car in pitch black desert

Lidar sensors allow autonomous vehicle to navigate its way around testing site at night

Ford has successfully tested night vision systems, which means its self-driving cars can manoeuvre in almost complete darkness.

The company has been running tests on a Fusion – the US version of the Mondeo - fitted with a Lidar system, which requires "no natural illumination to be able to spot obstacles ahead", says Car magazine.

A Ford video shows the car taking on the test route in Arizona with no headlamps on, relying instead on the technology to pick out the route and any potential hazards.

According to Gizmodo, autonomous cars use a wide array of sensors to navigate, most notably cameras, which are "useless" at night. By contrast, Lidar sensors, while easily fooled by snow or rain, are more than functional when there's no light around.

Stuff says the system usually works by "flashing lights and mapping the reflections in real time within the car to create a path, highlighting any obstacles on the road". Ford is doing this with no visible light. The Lidar fitted on its fleet of autonomous cars sends out 2.8 million laser pulses a second to scan the road ahead and build a 3D picture of traffic and the car's surroundings.

"The military has been doing this for a while, but it's now filtering down to Joe Public," adds the site.

It's ideal to use data from both the cameras and the Lidar system, says Autoblog, but Ford's tests have shown that the latter can be used independently if need be.

Sounds good, but the cost of the technology still needs to come down before it becomes viable for production cars, the site adds.

There are other drawbacks, too. As good as Lidar is at lighting up the car's surroundings so it can "see" in the dark, Forbes notes "it is ultimately only as useful as the reference maps the system uses for guidance".

Ford engineers have to annotate maps with relevant information such as speed limits, while map providers such as Garmin and TomTom will have to support Lidar cars with new databases containing the relevant information.

Forbes adds that it's another step towards an autonomous future on the roads, but there's still some way to go yet.

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