Ford Is Getting Some Help From NASA to Develop More Fully Self-Driving Cars

Ford's bringing the cars, NASA's bringing the quantum computing power.

by James Dennin

Ford is teaming up with NASA to try and solve the so-called “traveling salesman problem,” which refers to the problem of how to figure out the most efficient route between multiple cities while still returning to the point of origin. To help solve the problem, the auto giant recently inked a deal with NASA to use the space agency’s quantum computers.

“One of things we’re hearing from our customers as we’re deploying some early fleets in cities [is that] they’re not being deployed optimally,” Ken Washington, Ford’s CTO, told IEEE Spectrum. “That’s a real problem we need to have an answer to.”

Ford is paying $100,000 to use NASA’s QuAIL’s D-Wave 2000Q quantum annealer, according to a memo that IEEE Spectrum obtained. Quantum computers are a kind of super computer that don’t require you to speak in binary (i.e. ones and zeros), but instead use these tiny things called quibits that can store exponentially more data. As a result, you can do much, much more complex calculations much, much faster. According to the company that made it, the QuAIL’s D-Wave 2000Q is between 1,000 and 10,000 times faster than traditional algorithms in terms of computing time.

8-qubit quantum processors manufactured by Rigetti Computing.

Ford’s Plan For Autonomous Driving

Quantum computing is one of many of the feasible paths that have been tossed out as to how to bring fully autonomous cars onto the road. Just this week, the British smartphone chip manufacturer ARM announced a new chip that it says is powerful enough to enable fully autonomous driving by the year 2027.

In reality, that $100,000 is a drop in the bucket compared with the $4 billion Ford has committed to developing self-driving technology by the year 2021. A quarter of that was invested into an autonomous driving tech company called Argo AI.

In a further signal of its commitment to autonomous driving, Ford announced back in June that it had acquired Michigan Central Train Depot, a hundred-year old historic train station in downtown Detroit which it plans to turn into a hub for its A.I. and self-driving initiatives.

As Ford’s autonomous driving unit picks up speed, other projects have floundered. Uber laid off 100 members of its autonomous driving unit back in July, though it said at the time that the company remained committed to advancing safe self-driving technology. An August report by the tech publication The Information also reported that Alphabet’s Waymo was having trouble mastering the tricky tech needed to direct its cars through even simple, uncrowded intersections.

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