Ford engineers are working on the company’s autonomous car technology quite determinedly, as is evident from its recent success in making a self-driving Ford Fusion lap its Arizona Proving Grounds in complete darkness using Lidar, or laser radar, as its guide. The autonomous Ford Fusion drove with no headlights during its recent night drive.

How is Ford handling the psychological side of autonomous driving?

The Arizona test was done to underline the autonomous vehicle’s operation in a situation of complete darkness, which most people find nerve-wracking. Lidar is a standard feature found in most self-driving car gadgetry along with cameras and traditional radar. Self-driving cars are mostly tested during daylight hours so that all of their electronic systems can contribute to the process.

Autonomous vehicles are surely the future, but to make them, the biggest problem would not be scientific but rather psychological.

Jim McBride, Ford’s technical lead for autonomous vehicle development, says, “We take any opportunity we can to teach our future (self-driving car) customers about the technology so they can learn to trust it.”

Ford used data collected by beams of laser light shot out into the desert to plot its course instead of on-board cameras. Using laser scans, the on-board computers instantly tracked where the car was in relation to the landscape data. The safety drivers in the Fusion, in order to monitor the car’s behavior, wore military-grade night vision goggles. To describe the action of the evening training mission, Ford produced a video using military motifs.

A back-up to people

Google is also expanding its automated car driving test program. Last week, the search giant added the Phoenix area to test its existing programs in Austin, Kirkland, Wash., Texas, and its home base of Mountain View, Calif.

Google expects autonomous cars to become consumer-ready by 2019. It’s more likely to be 2020 or 2021, but the timeline is clearly accelerating, says Ford autonomous car Chief Randy Visintainer. The most essential part of self-driving cars will be a series of technological redundancies that ensure that in the case of one system’s failure, another is there to back it up, says Visintainer.

Presently, there are a lot of driver-assist features on cars, and if the system fails or does not understand what is happening, a person is there to back it up today.

“But to truly go autonomous, you have to develop systems that can take the place of the backup human. And that’s what we’re working hard on,” says Visintainer.

Ford plans to triple the number of autonomous cars it will be testing to 30 this year, and some of these cars will start driving on California roads, the automaker said.