Ford's "Nightonomy" Shows Self-Driving Cars Need Only LIDAR to See at Night

It's one condition humans will never be better at.


Driving in the dark seems like something autonomous vehicles should be able to do. After all, the technology relies on algorithms, cameras, and sensors, not light-sensitive eyes. Yet, autonomous car companies haven’t been promoting their product’s after-hours capabilities, partly because the technology just hasn’t been advanced enough.

Autonomous vehicles’ reliance on cameras is obviously out of the question in the night. Ford — the company who claims they will have autonomous technology ready by 2020 — announced today that their camera-less, self-driving darkness tests have been successful, and they released a YouTube video to prove it.

The video shows a prototype Ford Fusion navigating the company’s Arizona test track. The green tint of night vision goggles, the radioed in call of “sunset in T-5 minutes” at the top of the video, and the “Project Nightonomy” title gives the video a feeling of watching something top secret. The entire video feels like insight into a black ops mission, complete with epic background music and camouflage army helmets.

The view from the driver’s seat “is an odd feeling looking at the viewer and seeing exactly what I expected, but as soon as I look out the window all I saw was blackness,” the safety driver in the front seat states over the radio.

Despite the military theme and dramatics, the video itself is somewhat anti-climatic, which is exactly what the engineers at Ford are going for.

Testing the car in a lightless environment took out the camera element of self-driving entirely, Ford’s director of autonomous vehicle development Randy Visintainer told Re/code.

“The LIDAR, being the active laser source, was able to illuminate the space in close [proximity],” Visintainer said. “And you can see we could do the localization, object detection and tracking [with just the LIDAR]. That was the purpose of the test, to show the capability to continue to operate in the absence of the camera.”

Project Nightonomy showed that a car could rely only on LIDAR (Light Detection And Ranging) and an internal map to guide the car over a winding road in complete darkness. It’s one type of condition at which sight-reliant humans will never best autonomous vehicles.