When students at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology return en masse in the fall they will likely be sharing campus roads and walkways with self-driving mini-cars.
Ford Motor Company is partnering with the prestigious university to test what are essentially golf-carts equipped with high-tech cameras and LIDAR — light-sensitive radar. Under the pilot project, a set of students and faculty will be able to use smartphones to summon the carts to take them to other locations on campus. There’s a video of the vehicles in action.
Data collected in the course of the pilot, which is expected to begin in September and run through the school year, will be used to further Ford’s Dynamic Shuttle program. The automaker already operates a self-driving shuttle bus on its campus in Dearborn, Mich. that employees can hail via an app.
But the MIT project will allow engineers at Ford to refine the vehicles’ ability to interact with pedestrians, which may pose one of the greatest challenges in deploying self-driving technology in the real world, both in personal vehicles and in public transit.
Ford will use the self-driving carts to collect data on patterns of pedestrian behavior, all with the blessing of MIT.
Researchers will also attempt to make the carts available based on demand, a feature that would be crucial to incorporating the technology into ride-hailing, as the industry giant Uber is keen to do.
In short, the campus program may offer the first glimpse at how a self-driving ride-hailing network might operate in a real world environment, if on a very small scale.
While major automakers have launched partnerships with ride-hail companies, such as the $500 million investment GM has made in Lyft. Ford appears to be forging its own path.
And central to Ford’s goal is integrating self-driving technology with mass transit through the Dynamic Shuttle program.
Erica Klampfl, a Ford global mobility manager, said in a company statement last year:
“The Dynamic Shuttle solution could fill the gap between a taxi service and public busing in cities around the globe. It also could offer a valuable service in emerging economies, where growth is outstripping development of the public transport infrastructure.”
Ford is not the only automaker or technology company that is conducting real-world tests of autonomous vehicles. Mercedes-Benz has begun testing a self-driving bus in the Netherlands that drives to the airport. In the Washington, D.C. area, a self-driving minibus known as Olli equipped with IBM Watson technology, is expected to make its official debut in the fall providing shuttle service around a shopping mall.