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Ford Fusion Hybrid
The latest version of Ford’s self-driving Fusion Hybrid prototype has lidar sensors mounted on the car’s front pillars. (Ford Photo)

The latest iteration of Ford’s self-driving Fusion Hybrid vehicle, unveiled today, repositions the laser-ranging sensors that used to poke up from the roof and adds a lot more smarts in the trunk.

Ford’s sneak preview came in the form of a blog post by Chris Brewer, chief program engineer for Ford autonomous vehicle development. The car is due to make its official debute next week at the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

“It’s been three years since we hit the streets with our first Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle, and this latest version takes everything we learned and builds on it,” Brewer wrote.

From the outside, the most noticeable feature is the sleeker profile, which features navigation cameras that are built into luggage-rack-style rails on top and 360-degree lidar sensors that are mounted onto the car’s front pillars. Those two laser-ranging sensors now do the job that once required four sensors sticking up from the roof.

“These new sensors possess a sensing range roughly the length of two football fields in every direction,” Brewer said. “High-definition lidar is especially well-suited for distinguishing where an object is, how big it is and what it looks like.”

The laser-ranging view is supplemented by camera views and radar readings. All those readings are fed into the vehicle’s electronic brain, where they’re matched up with 3-D terrain maps and processed using Ford’s “virtual driver” algorithms..

“The equivalent of several high-end computers generate 1 terabyte of data an hour  —  more than the average person would use in mobile-phone data in 45 years,” Brewer said.

Ford Fusion computer
The brains behind Ford’s self-driving Fusion Hybrid are in the trunk. (Ford Photo)

Ford already is using autonomous 30 Fusion Hybrid cars for road testing in Michigan, California and Arizona. “We plan to grow the fleet even more, tripling its size to about 90 cars in the new year,” Brewer said.

The objective is to have an automobile capable of Level 4 autonomy — that is, capable of handling typical driving conditions, if not out-of-the-ordinary conditions — available for commercial ride-hailing or ride-hailing fleet services by 2021.

“For now, the car still comes with a steering wheel and pedals  —  equipment our ride-sharing vehicles ultimately won’t include,” Brewer said.

There’s still no official word about Ford’s potential partners for future autonomous driving services, although Uber is using Ford Fusion Hybrids in the autonomous ride-hailing experiment it’s conducting in Pittsburgh.

Interest in self-driving cars is accelerating, as indicated by the latest round of announcements:

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