<p><strong><em>Photo of autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicle courtesy of Ford.</em></strong></p>

VIDEO: Ford’s Autonomous Car Progress

Ford Motor Co. is tripling the size of its fleet of fully autonomous Ford Fusion Hybrid test vehicles, and will use new sensor technology as the company further accelerates development plans for self-driving cars, Ford said.

This year, Ford will add 20 Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles, bringing the company's self-driving car test fleet to about 30 vehicles. They will be tested on roads in California, Arizona and Michigan.

“Using the most advanced technology and expanding our test fleet are clear signs of our commitment to make autonomous vehicles available for millions of people,” said Raj Nair, Ford chief technical officer and executive vice president of global product development. “With more autonomous vehicles on the road, we are accelerating the development of software algorithms that serve to make our vehicles even smarter.”

Ford has engaged in autonomous vehicle research for more than a decade. (To view a Ford video about the company's progress in autonomous car research and development, click on the photo or link below the headline.) The current expansion is a key element of the Ford Smart Mobility initiative, aimed at taking the company to the next level in connectivity, mobility, autonomous vehicles, the customer experience, and data and analytics.

The newest vehicles are on Ford’s third-generation autonomous vehicle development platform, built using Fusion Hybrid sedans.

Ford recently announced its fully autonomous cars will take to the streets of California this year. The company already tests autonomous vehicles at its proving grounds, as well as on public roads, in Michigan. Ford was the first automaker to test a fully autonomous vehicle at Mcity – a 32-acre simulated urban environment at the University of Michigan.

Ford is using Velodyne’s newest LiDAR sensors – named Solid-State Hybrid Ultra PUCK Auto for their hockey puck-like size and shape – on the automaker’s third-generation autonomous vehicle platform. These sensors boast a longer range of 200 meters, making them the first auto-specific LiDAR sensors capable of handling different driving scenarios, Ford said.

Ultra Puck will accelerate the development and validation of Ford’s virtual driver software, which serves as the decision-making brain that directs vehicle systems, Ford said. The lightweight design of the LiDAR sensor permits packaging on a vehicle, such as placement on the sideview mirror.

The design, Ford noted, means the company can reduce the amount of LiDAR sensors from four to two on new Fusion Hybrid autonomous vehicles, and get as much useful data because of the more targeted field of view.

”Adding the latest generation of computers and sensors, including the smaller and more affordable Solid-State Hybrid Ultra PUCK Auto sensors, helps bring Ford ever closer to having a fully autonomous vehicle ready for production,” said Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles.

The vehicle's hardware systems, which interact continuously with the virtual driver, are equally important.

Third-generation autonomous Fusion Hybrid sedans will have supplemental features and duplicate wiring for power, steering and brakes. These supplemental features will act as backups, if needed.

Ford has been using Velodyne LiDAR sensors for roughly a decade, dating back to Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency autonomous vehicle challenges. LiDAR emits short pulses of laser light to precisely scan the surrounding environment millions of times per second and determine the distance to objects, allowing the vehicle to create a real-time, high-definition 3D image of whatever’s around it.

Ford’s first-generation autonomous vehicle platform was built using a Ford F-250 Super Duty for participation in the DARPA challenges in 2005 and 2007. In 2013, Ford introduced its second-generation autonomous vehicle platform, using a Fusion Hybrid sedan.

Ford was one of only six teams to participate in both the DARPA Desert Classic and Urban Finals challenges, supported by four engineers who still are on the company’s autonomous vehicle development team.

“We’ve come a long way since DARPA,” said McBride. “A decade ago, no one in the field knew what the art of the possible was. Today, we’re all hustling to make the most ambitious dreams become a reality.”

Fusion Hybrid sedans were chosen for the second-generation vehicles because they have the newest and most advanced electrical architecture. With the latest generation of computers and sensors – including the smaller but more advanced Velodyne LiDAR HDL-32E sensor – Ford’s autonomous vehicle platform moved a step closer to production.

The objective of the second-generation vehicle fleet is to test many of the computing and sensor components required to achieve fully autonomous driving capability, as defined by SAE International Level 4. This level doesn't require the driver to intervene and take control of the vehicle.

Last summer, Ford transitioned from the research phase of development to the advanced engineering phase.

Meanwhile, Ford said it continues to hone other types of sensors – cameras, radar and ultrasonic devices – to deliver semi-autonomous features to customers today. These include adaptive cruise control, active park assist, lane-departure warning, lane-keeping aid, pedestrian detection, Pro Trailer Backup Assist and vehicle-to-vehicle connection technology already available on millions of Ford vehicles today.