Ford aims to make hands-free driver assist more intuitive than rivals

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DETROIT — Ford Motor Co. officials believe an upcoming hands-free driver assist system is more intuitive and driver-friendly than established options from rivals General Motors and Tesla Inc.

The feature, called Active Drive Assist, will launch in the third quarter of 2021. The hardware to enable the system will first be available as an optional package on certain 2021 vehicles, including the Mustang Mach-E, which debuts later this year. Officials did not specify what other vehicles would get the system, part of a host of updates announced Thursday to its CoPilot360 driver assist feature suite.

The system uses infrared cameras, including a driver-facing camera in the steering wheel, to monitor an operator’s alertness. So long as they’re paying attention, a driver can engage the system and drive hands-free on more than 100,000 miles of divided highways in all 50 states and Canada.

Active Drive Assist is Ford’s answer to Cadillac’s Super Cruise and Tesla’s Autopilot. Officials say they took special care to develop a series of graphics and indicators to let drivers know when the system is engaged and when it’s not.

“We noted from reviewing systems on sale it can be a little confusing for customers,” Darren Palmer, Ford’s global director for battery electric vehicles, said on a conference call. “The team used a human centered design approach to do this. We tried graphics, colors, and information to see which would be understood by most people without education.”

They settled on a series of features tied to the vehicle’s digital cluster above the steering wheel. It will light up blue to indicate the system is on, and will display a logo of a steering wheel with two hands raised away from it. When the driver needs to retake control, a logo of hands gripping a wheel will blink. When the system is on, the digital cluster also displays a protective bubble around the an overhead image of the vehicle.

Palmer said creating an intuitive human-machine interface was key.

“It was an area we specifically set out to make understandable for customers, especially ones who have never used such a system before,” he said.

Additionally, Palmer said Ford’s system will allow a driver to retake control with a gentle nudge of the steering wheel. He noted competitive tests on other systems showed the vehicle “locked in” and that a customer would “really have to wrestle with it” to regain control.

Officials declined to announce pricing details but indicated it would be “very competitive.” Customers will have to purchase both the Ford Co-Pilot360 Active 2.0 Prep Package and the Active Drive Assist software, which will be activated in the third quarter of 2021.

The software can be activated either through an over-the-air update or at a Ford dealer.

Ford said the prep package would be available “across the Mach-E lineup,” a change from initial plans to offer it only on Premium and GT trims.

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Saurabh Shukla

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