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Ford Says It's the First Carmaker to Test Self-Driving Cars in the Snow. (But Google Has, Too.)

Yeah, but can the car scrape ice off the windshield on its own?


Silicon Valley has California sun, but Detroit has snow. And Ford wants to use that climate as an asset in the critical race to develop self-driving cars.

On Sunday evening, Ford said that it will be “conducting the industry’s first” self-driving car tests in winter weather, including snow, taking on a major obstacle for autonomous vehicle technology.

That said, Ford’s robot cars won’t be on public roads. And Google, a maybe friend and maybe foe, has started to put its robot cars in snow as well.

Ford will run the tests within Mcity, a 32-acre testing facility run by the University of Michigan meant to simulate real-world driving environments. In November, Ford became the first carmaker to test autonomous cars there. The carmaker has been running tests with its software and sensors in the snow for over a year, but started driving in the weather last month, a spokeswoman said.

“It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather,” said Jim McBride, Ford’s technical lead for self-driving cars, in a statement. “It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow.

He’s right. Wintry weather is often cited as the primary technical hurdle for self-driving cars getting on the road nationally, en masse. Snow, in particular, hides other vehicles, lane markings and signals from the car sensors. Google and the carmakers testing self-driving cars have done so in gentler climates.

How did Ford leap the technical hurdle? A combination of Lidar sensors with its own 3-D maps that, the company says, read things like signs, landmarks and topography around the car. This fix is, judging from conversations I’ve had with people in the autonomous industry, a difficult one. But, presumably, Ford wants wants to sell self-driving vehicles — as a feature for personal cars and/or within fleets — wherever they sell Fords today; hence the winter trials.

Other carmakers have not been public about snow testing. But Google has. In its December report, the company’s self-driving car unit said it was beginning to test in “rainy and snowy conditions.” That included recent tests on wintry roads in Lake Tahoe, Calif., according to one person familiar with the company.

Last week at CES, Ford announced that it was tripling its fleet of autonomous test cars next year, to 30 (on sunny roads). Google, which leads in the number of test vehicles, has around 50 on the roads now, in California and Texas. The two companies have held talks about self-driving cars, but a rumored collaboration has yet to come about.

Uber, another company plowing money into self-driving cars, is doing so in Pittsburgh. It snows there, too.

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