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Ford Fusion autonomous
Ford says its autonomous vehicles are the first to be tested in snowy conditions. To navigate slippery roads, Ford uses high-resolution 3-D maps and other technology. (Via Ford)

Driving in the snow can be challenging enough for even the most skilled drivers among us. Teaching an autonomous vehicle to navigate slippery conditions sounds like something that would send us packing for warmer, drier surroundings.

Ford Motor Company isn’t steering around the idea of making sure its self-driving cars can handle sketchy roads as the automaker said in a news release this week it is the first to publicly demonstrate autonomous vehicle operation in the snow.

In doing so, Ford revealed some facts about its self-driving Fusion Hybrid research vehicle which allow it to operate in wintry conditions:

  • The vehicle first drives a route in ideal weather and scans the environment to create high-resolution 3-D digital maps. The car can locate itself within the mapped area later, when the road is covered in snow.
  • The car collects up to 600 gigabytes of data per hour to map the landscape. The average subscriber of a cellular data plan uses about 21.6 gigabytes per year, for a 10-year total of 216 gigabytes, the company says.
  • LiDAR sensors generate so many laser points that some can even bounce off falling snowflakes or raindrops. Researchers created an algorithm that recognizes snow and rain, filtering them out of the car’s vision so it can continue along its path.
  • If GPS is considered the standard for location accuracy (to just more than 10 yards), Ford says its vehicles can precisely locate themselves to within a centimeter.
  • Cameras and radar monitor the environment around the vehicle for 360-degree situational awareness. Eventually, the cars might be able to handle ice and grime buildup on sensors through self-cleaning or defogging measures.
Ford autonomous vehicle
The Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicle collects an enormous amount of data around the car. (Via Ford)

Ford’s winter road testing takes place in Michigan, according to the company, including at MCity, a 32-acre, real-world driving environment at the University of Michigan.

In decidedly warmer Las Vegas during the Consumer Electronics Show in January, Ford CEO Mark Fields spoke about “changing the way the world moves.” The company is investing and innovating heavily to become more than just an auto company, but also a “mobility” company. Fields touted Ford’s work in autonomous vehicles, saying the company was an early adopter of the concept and continues to evolve its offerings.

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