Ford Motor Company made quite a splash at the latest Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas, presenting a detailed overview of what the company calls its “Ford Smart Mobility” strategy. A component of this strategy is the development of an autonomous vehicle; that is, a vehicle that drives itself.

The concepts developed so far by Ford, and for that matter, many, if not most, of the major automotive manufacturers, seem to me to have implications for the small, task-oriented vehicle (STOV) product and market development. In some ways, as I will describe, markets in gated (or planned) communities, resorts, colleges and universities, and outdoor recreation areas offer environments that are particularly conducive to the autonomous vehicle concept.

Ford’s strategic view of mega-trends

The Ford presentation at the CES set the stage for a series of forward-looking innovations, including the driverless vehicle, by citing a number of mega-trends that are overtaking our planet, presenting challenges begging for solutions. A whole range of issues arise in the transportation sector because of the emergence of mega-cities; that is, cities with populations of 10 million inhabitants or more. Based on a World Atlas compilation, there are now 26 cities across the globe with 10 million or more inhabitants.  And, it is interesting to note, as well, that of the 26 cities, 18 are in lesser developed nations—four in China and three in India.

As Ford management points out in their presentation, the massive clustering of such populations presents significant issues for transportation and connectivity in general. With regard to transportation, Ford sees a significant market developing in transportation services, for which the company is preparing.

A more specific concern might be the aging of the general population in developed economies. These are populations whose much longer life expectancy will bring along with it the usual handicaps of older age; i.e., poor vision, reduced hearing, slower reflexes, and even lessened memory. Such population segments will be in need of compensatory transportation technology.

Most importantly in Ford’s plans is the fact that the company is advancing the autonomous vehicle concept from R&D, to what is described as advanced engineering, and particularly In the area of travel for individuals—implying a family, individually owned vehicle, or shared vehicles on demand.  In this regard, Ford highlighted its relationship with Velodyne Corporation, a privately-held technology company, based in Morgan Hill, CA.

The Ultra-Puck LiDAR system

In one way or another, Velodyne morphed from a company which produced state-of-the-art sub-woofers in the audio market to a company now centered on the development of laser-based sensing systems. The product line is generically called LiDAR, although this is apparently not a trademark, as the term emerged from the basic discovery and implementation of the core technology in the early 1960s. Essentially, the technology combines the use of laser-focused imaging with the ability of radar to calculate distances by measuring the time it takes for a signal to return.

The Ultra-Puck sends out short pulses of laser light to scan the surrounding environment at a rate of millions of times per minute, allowing the collection of millions of data points and the creation of a real-time 3-D image of the environment. Mounted on a moving vehicle, the Ultra-Puck records and images the ever-changing environment and transmits commands to the vehicle, to change direction, slow down, stop, pick up speed, and all the rest of the activities that you, as a driver, routinely do, as you move from point A to point B. The prospects for commercial application to vehicles doubtlessly benefitted from the huge gains in efficiencies in data storage and processing speeds that have transformed the way we do business and live our lives over the passed five decades.

An essential aspect of the Ultra-Puck is its size.  It actually looks like about three hockey pucks stacked, albeit with a slightly larger diameter. This constitutes a dramatic reduction in size from previous versions and makes the device unobtrusively mountable on different locations on the vehicle.

Applications to the personal transportation vehicle (golf cars and LSVs)

Now the fun part. How does autonomous vehicle technology apply to PTVs? First it should be noted that the largest concentrations of PTVs are in gated communities, which are friendly environments to begin with. A driverless PTV could be a significant benefit to elderly and handicapped residents for whom the conventional PTV has become a challenge. Even for active adults, the option of “going driverless” means giving attention passengers, checking grocery lists, or streaming video from wherever to a tablet or laptop, all the while on the way to the market or the golf course. Of course, an ability to call ahead, cell phone in hand, and not worrying about being “hands-free”, because they are free.

Applications for transporters, shared vehicles

Driverless transporters and shared vehicles on campuses, resorts, and campgrounds could be a value-added feature where students or guests are not familiar with all aspects of their location. Simply get in, press a touchscreen destination button and off you go. When you think about it, this is not a far cry from fleet management systems that have been developed by Club Car (Visage™), E-Z-GO (TKVM), and Yamaha (Yamatrack). Of course, the autonomous vehicle feature brings things to a new level.

nd, what about costs? Hey, that’s another story. For now it’s something to think about, a vision for things to come. I look at it this way:  If there is a need, there is a market; if there is a market, there exists the means to supply it. Show me where this hasn’t been the case.