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Audi, Ford Expand Self-Driving Car Programs as Car-Focused CES Approaches

Audi will begin testing self-driving cars at a California racetrack, while Ford is tripling its autonomous vehicle fleet.

by / January 6, 2016
Ford tests one of its self-driving cars at MCity, a "fake city" designed to test autonomous vehicles and smart cars at the University of Michigan. Ford

Two automakers announced expansions in their autonomous vehicle (AV) testing programs on Tuesday, Jan. 5, as the approaching Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas continues to put a spotlight on self-driving cars.

Audi told the world that it is working with California’s Electronics Research Lab to begin testing its self-driving cars at the Thunderhill Raceway Park near Chico, while Ford said it was tripling its fleet of test cars from 10 to 30.

Audi — which didn’t hold a permit from the California Department of Motor Vehicles to test self-driving cars on public roads as of Dec. 3 — announced in a press release that it plans on using the racetrack to test its cars “at the limits of speed.” The move comes ahead of Audi’s planned release of “highly automated” cars in its A8 sedan line in the coming years.

Ford — one of 11 companies that does hold a permit to test autonomous vehicles on California’s public roads — announced the same day that it plans on tripling its fleet of test cars across California, Arizona and Michigan. The newest additions, Fusion Hybrids, will feature an updated version of the sensor technology Ford has been using to feed information to its driving software in test vehicles thus far.

According to a company press release, the new vehicles will feature a stronger LIDAR sensor — one that shoots lasers at objects and uses the reflections to sense the surroundings — with a longer range of more than 650 feet. That will allow the company to cut the number of sensors on the vehicle down from four to two.

The automaker identified the newest versions of its test AVs as “third generation.”

The trend among automakers in developing AVs thus far has been to begin by introducing semi-autonomous features. Tesla Motors broke ground in October when it released a software update allowing certain Model S cars to maintain lanes on the highway, change lanes and park without driver assistance. Others have followed suit, with General Motors planning to release similar features in Cadillacs later this year.

Several other automakers and technology companies are also testing autonomous vehicles, but some have come up against a possible regulatory hurdle in one of the biggest testing grounds for self-driving cars: California. The state DMV proposed regulations in December that would allow cars to drive themselves for non-testing purposes only if a licensed driver is sitting at the controls and capable of taking over at a moment’s notice.

That conflicts with the plans of companies like Google, which has perhaps the largest fleet of test AVs in the country and has stated publicly that it wants to build AVs without controls for humans to drive the car.

News broke in December that Google is partnering with Ford to build AVs.