LAS VEGAS -- Raj Nair says he will be first in line when autonomous vehicles go on sale. Nair, Ford Motor Co.'s product development chief and a big fan of self-driving cars, says the vehicles' two biggest needs are improved sensor capability and development of software that can read the road as a human would.
Nair, 51, has global responsibility for Ford's design, engineering, research and product development. He was interviewed by Automotive News Europe Editor Luca Ciferri in January at the Consumer Electronics Show here.
Q: When will autonomous vehicles go on sale?
A: I think it is credible that an autonomous vehicle at SAE Level 4 [one step below full automation] will hit the market by 2020.
What are the main technical problems?
There are two we are focusing on: software algorithms and sensor capability. The human body is an amazing array of sensors -- two great optical sensors, auditory sensors and balance sensors that provide information that the brain doesn't only perceive but also filters.
To reproduce all of that with a combination of lidar [a kind of radar based on laser beams], radar and ultrasonic sensors is a big challenge. Then there are the algorithms. They are reasonably straightforward for the basic aspects of driving. If you can see the white lines it's not that hard to steer the vehicle between them. But for all the other things that your mind works through when driving, you need to be prepared for all of them. This increases the level of sensor capability processing you need.
So greater sophistication increases the challenge?
Yes, a lot. It's almost like going up an exponential scale. To get to the first portion is not that hard, but with every percentage above it you're going up exponentially in terms of sensors and processing capability. You also have to ask how far up that scale do we need to be -- forgetting the regulatory aspect -- for our own comfort as a manufacturer. How much better than a human driver does the system need to be for us to feel comfortable putting it into thousands of vehicles?
From Level 4 to a car that can go from one city center to another, how much more time will be needed? Five years?
I think it depends. ... We really need exact positioning of the vehicle and to have the vehicle reference itself to a known map. That makes some of the sensing a little bit easier. If you know that an image, based on previous mapping, is a fire hydrant, then you don't need to consider whether it is a fire hydrant or a small boy. ... If you were to provide laser mapping for a highway connecting two cities as you mentioned, then even Level 4 would be capable of that. But if you want to go out on a dirt road or somewhere not previously mapped and expect the vehicle to be able to deal with all the possibilities that could happen -- a cow running across the road, for example -- that's a challenge for Level 5.
Does connected car require high-resolution digital mapping?
Our view in the medium time frame we're talking about is yes, we need high-definition digital maps.