Ford and MIT partnered up for a project to assist electric shuttles gauge current levels of demand among pedestrians and better understand which locations may score top demand of their services.
The EVs will be packing image recording technologies such as inexpensive cameras and LiDARs and will hit the road on public city streets after being tested at MIT's Cambridge campus.
The fleet of electric vehicles will not only rival Lyft and Uber's already running operations, but also aid the research on pedestrian traffic and the improvement of future self-driving cars.
The first phase of the MIT-Ford project will debut in September, with students being able to hail the tiny electric cars from their mobile devices. The vehicles are small enough to make their way through sidewalks without disturbing the existing pedestrian traffic.
One reason why the cars are able to move seamlessly between people is that the research team collected data on pedestrian levels and patterns over the past five months. The team used LiDAR sensors resembling those on self-driving cars to gauge the foot traffic levels.
The gathered data, coupled with other pieces of info such as class schedules, present weather conditions and "the dynamic habits of students and professors across different semesters," allows the researchers to determine where to route and position the vehicles throughout the day.
On one hand, the project will enable the creation of an autonomous ridesharing system, which could prove very useful in campuses, while on the other it will provide Ford with advanced know-how on pedestrian detection. The automaker should make use of the knowledge in its self-driving car projects.
By refining the performance of LiDARs, autonomous vehicles should be able to use fewer cameras while also improving the way in which they cross densely populated pedestrian areas.
"This program is gathering good information, and experimenting with various ways to use less resolution in LiDAR to detect pedestrians," says Bryan Goodman, Ford's Manger and Technical Leader of Autonomous Vehicle Analysis.
Goodman also notes that the current phase of the project should last until the year's end, but Ford and MIT are already working on what the next phase might look like. Regardless of their ongoing cooperation, Ford has one important purpose in mind: to take further steps in its Smart Mobility program, such that electric shuttles driven by human drivers will be replaced with fully autonomous models.
Meanwhile, rival manufacturer Mercedes already deployed an autonomous bus that makes regular driverless trips to the Amsterdam airport.