Ford Debuts Autonomous Driving Technology: Video

June 28, 2012
Ford's Traffic Jam Assist technology

Ford's Traffic Jam Assist technology

Yesterday, our sister site, Motor Authority, told you about Ford's efforts to measure drivers' stress levels through sensors embedded in seatbelts, steering wheels, and elsewhere in the cabin. Now comes word that Ford is actively working to reduce stress via technology that allows cars to drive themselves in traffic jams and offers additional help with parking.

The latter of those two is important, though not entirely earth-shattering. In a nutshell, Ford is enhancing its active park assist feature (which already covers parallel parking) to help with perpendicular parking spaces, like the kind you find at grocery stores and malls. Most drivers can handle perpendicular parking just fine, but for bigger vehicles, it'll be nice to know in advance when a squeeze is just too tight. 

Far more exciting is the feature that Ford is calling Traffic Jam Assist. That technology employs a string of radar and camera devices to keep a vehicle in its proper lane, maintaining pace with the traffic around it. 

What's ingenious about Traffic Jam Assist is that it doesn't require Ford to recreate the wheel. At heart, it's simply an extension of existing Ford technologies -- namely, adaptive cruise control and lane assist --  that allows those technologies to talk to one another so that cars can somewhat autonomous. 


There are two major benefits to Traffic Jam Assist: (1) it reduces driver stress and (2) it has the potential to cut transit times by more than 1/3. 

The first of those doesn't need much explanation -- after all, what's more frustrating than stop-and-go traffic? Letting a car drive itself in such situations would seem to nix stress pretty quickly.

As for item #2, Ford engineer Joseph Urhahne says that drivers spend over 30% of their time behind the wheel in heavy traffic. In simulations that he and his team have run, if just 25% of the vehicles on those crowded roadways used technology like Traffic Jam Assist, it would keep things moving far more smoothly and cut travel times by as much as 37.5%.

Ford says that it is developing this technology "for the mid-term" -- which sounds to us like it's about five years away. However, if competitors like Volkswagen deploy similar experimental technology sooner, we might see the launch date moved up. 

Our take

In a way, Ford's tech developments are to be expected. After all, luxury automakers have already announced plans to roll out technology very similar to Traffic Jam Assist within a year or two.

What's exciting is the fact that these advances are coming from an international, mass-market manufacturer like Ford. It's one thing to find high-tech features on an Audi R8 or one of Google's autonomous cars, but quite another to see it used on everyday vehicles like the Ford Fiesta.

Why's that exciting? Because as cool as this technology may seem, it doesn't do much good until a significant number of drivers have access to it. If only a couple of vehicles on the interstate use Traffic Jam Assist, for example, it may reduce those drivers' stress levels, but it's not going to significantly cut travel times.

There's little doubt that autonomous driving will become increasingly common down the road -- particularly in heavily congested areas like urban and suburban environments. Let's hope, though, that someone leaves a few manual options in place for those of us who like to hit the open road.

For more info about these developments, check out this video clip from Ford.  

Does this kind of thing excite you? Terrify you? Make you yawn? Let us know in the comments below.

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