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This Ford Concept Car Shoots Lasers to Help It See

Brian Heater
Tech Columnist
February 27, 2014

The spinning antlers on top of the Ford Fusion Hybrid research vehicle are more than just ornamental. And, in spite of appearances, they’re not there to fend off fellow hybrids during mating season.

They’re actually part of a futuristic detection system the company is looking to implement in self-driving vehicles. The technology is called LiDAR — as in, light and radar. It’s similar to the echolocation found in dolphins, only with light in the place of sound.

The four cylinders atop the vehicle spin rapidly in 360 degrees, shooting out lasers that bounce off nearby objects, building a 3D map of all the objects within 200 feet. The system is capable of detecting large and small objects, whether or not they’re in motion.

The company will begin implementing the technology for vehicle-to-vehicle communication — a safety system the U.S. Department of Transportation is looking to make mandatory to help cut down on collisions.

In the more distant future, LiDAR could be used to pilot self-driving cars and to help vehicles self-park. When asked when such a technology might reach consumers, the Ford representative I spoke with was unable to give a specific time frame.

Of course, Ford isn’t the only company working on autonomous vehicles. Google first brought the technology to the public’s attention back in 2011, when it announced its driverless car project, which had previously only been the realm of its secretive X-Labs division. Google’s car uses similar LiDAR technology, without the camera utilized in Ford’s version.

A number of major manufacturers, including BMW, Mercedes and Nissan, have announced their own autonomous vehicle initiatives, though those models generally use more traditional radar or video tracking systems — or some combination thereof.

Like the LiDAR system, safety is one of the primary advantages of such a technology, with computer systems presenting a lower potential accident rate than human drivers. And, hey, it would mean you could sit back and read the paper on the morning commute — once technology fully addresses car sickness, that is. 

The emerging space has caused such a buzz in recent years, in fact, that a number of states, including Nevada, California, Florida and Michigan, have all passed laws addressing the technology.

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