Driverless cars and solar-powered cars are nothing new these days, even if they’re not mainstream (yet). But Ford, good ol’ Detroit-based Ford, has ended 2013 and begun 2014 with a couple of major announcements and innovations that may shift associations with the company from the classic American truck to cutting-edge, power-saving vehicles.
You may have heard of the Ford Fusion, which comes in many models. The S and SE have all the fun gadgets, including voice-activation, cameras, sensors, lane tracking, and parking and driving assistance, and get about 22 miles per gallon in the city and 34 on the highway. The Hybrid version gets 47 miles per gallon and comes with a customizable SmartGauge (SmartEVERYTHING, see?) that keeps track of pretty much everything.
Ford’s automated (they don’t like the word “driverless”) car, which the company demonstrated back in December at its Michigan headquarters, is a Fusion with a modified instrument panel, 360-degree camera, and 3-D mapping capabilities. It uses a sensing technology called LIDAR (Light Detection and Ranging) to scan the road millions of times per section. Researched and developed with help by researchers from my alma mater, the University of Michigan, and the State Farm insurance company, Ford’s car keeps the driver “in the loop” while further automating its operation — full autonomy in the vehicle is only possible on certain highways and always under the guidance of the driver. This makes a lot of sense — a fully automated, driverless system seems to create as many problems as it solves, at least for now. Smaller steps with regards to potentially dangerous technology seem to be the smarter way to go. Ford’s car harvests data that it believes will help drivers’ awareness, and will eventually facilitate further automation. At this point, the car is more for research for future models than it is for manufacture and retail. Ford’s goal is to acquire enough technological insight, as well as enough safety precautions, to begin installing these features in its mainstream fleet by 2025.
Ford’s latest announcement involves its C-Max Solar Energi — a solar-powered car that can provide the same power as a charging a battery for four hours. At full charge, the car can travel 21 miles without using a drop of gas, and a full day of sunlight could allow the car the same functionality as a traditional hybrid car. Just in case, though, the car will have an electrical charging socket. The solar panel roof of the car contains a Fresnal lens, which concentrates sunlight much like a magnifying glass does, and follows the sun across the sky to harvest as much direct sunlight as possible. Right now the car is just a concept prototype and will soon undergo feasibility testing. While solar power can easily run systems such as the air conditioning of a car, it’s tough to run a car solely on solar power. Combining solar and electrical power is an innovation that may grease the way for more solar-powered vehicles in the future. Still, I think I’ll hold out for the solar-powered bike.