Ford has become the very first automaker to send self-driving cars out into the winter wilds, in an effort to perform important steps in the autonomous vehicle testing process. The winter experiments took place in blustery Michigan at Mcity, a 32-acre full-scale simulation of a real-world city setting that is located at the University of Michigan. A Ford Fusion Hybrid was the guinea pig in the latest experiment.

Previously, driverless vehicles have only been tested in dry, mainly sunny places. Winter conditions are the next step, as Jim McBride, Ford technical leader for autonomous vehicles, stated in a press release. “It’s one thing for a car to drive itself in perfect weather…It’s quite another to do so when the car’s sensors can’t see the road because it’s covered in snow.”

Autonomous vehicles can’t fall back on GPS navigation to get around because the technology’s accuracy is limited to just a few yards. That’s not quite enough to correctly pinpoint the vehicle’s position. That precision is critical — a difference of just a few inches could lead to serious problems on two-lane roads or crowded city streets. Instead of GPS, Ford’s self-driving vehicles were tested with LiDAR, which can narrow down the vehicle’s lane position to the centimeter. LiDAR pulses laser light so that the vehicle can construct real-time, high-definition 3D images of the surrounding area.

The trouble with winter environments lies in snow obstructing everything. LiDAR can’t see the road when it’s layered in snow, or when snow and grime cover its sensor lens. So the new challenge? Overcome this limitation and bring sight to the blind vehicle using advanced maps that also include objects above and around the road, like street signs, landmarks and road markings. When the snow covers the ground, the LiDAR scans the landmarks around it to figure out its position on a 3D map — just like you would when traveling the world with a paper one.

Pretty cool, huh? Be sure to check out the hybrids we have at our Ford dealership in Travelers Rest, SC, and get a taste for the vehicles you’ll be driving in the near future!