Most drivers do not care much when they see insects permeating the entire windshield because it is nothing that a good wash cannot solve. However, the same does not happen with sensors and cameras attached to an autonomous car. And nobody at Ford is more aware of this danger than Venky Krishnan, the company’s chief supervisor of the company’s autonomous vehicle systems.
In a publication of the American blog Medium, Krishnan sheds some light on the type of thinking and technology created specifically to eliminate possible failures. The brand’s researchers have spent years analyzing the threats posed by insects to the sensors of their autonomous cars to allow them to always see the world around them, regardless of the number of errors in other cars or sensors.
Each autonomous Ford car has something called “the tiara”, which is nothing more than the structure placed on the roof that houses the cameras, radar and LIDAR sensors. An impact against any insect would make them less precise, which is not the desired objective. Among the tests carried out by the signature of the blue oval, earth and dust have been sprayed on the tiara, and they have even bathed it in water to simulate the rain and spread of synthetic bird droppings.
Ford has gone so far as to create an “error launcher”, device that shoots insects at high-speed vehicle sensors. The engineers decided to try to prevent the “mistakes” hitting the sensors, to begin with. The tiara channels the air through the slots near the camera lens to create an air curtain that eliminates defects. From the company they declare that this method worked very well.
However, it was not perfect, since some “mistakes” could still pass through the air curtain. This is where the second line of defense comes into play, motivated by the ability to clean the sensors. Through a system of slots near the lens, washing liquid is sprayed. Once it is clean, the car dries it by releasing air through the grooves. Ford argues that the sensors have to be cleaned no matter what the world throws at them.
As fun as it may seem part of this development, these are no features that would simply be nice when autonomous vehicles are ready to be deployed; they are critical functions that cars must be able to perform on their own so that safe deployment is possible. Just as they must equip them with the brain to process what happens, they must also equip them with the tools to deal with that environment.
Cleaning the sensors may seem like a mundane engineering task, but it is crucial if the huge investments made in autonomous driving technology are really worth it. This technology is already in use in Ford‘s third-generation autonomous test cars, which can be seen circulating through Detroit, Washington D.C., Pittsburgh and Miami-Dade County, United States.