Fully autonomous vehicle technology has taken one giant leap closer to reality. Meet the full-size remote control Ford Ranger parts delivery ute.
One of Australia’s largest mining companies, Fortescue Metals Group, has equipped autonomous driving technology to a fleet of four Ford Ranger utes – after developing similar systems for heavy duty mining trucks since 2015.
While fully autonomous technology is still years – or even decades – away from Australian roads, the mining trial could be expanded to include more vehicles at more mining sites in the near future.
The autonomous Ford Ranger utes will be based at a mine in a remote part of West Australia, Chichester Hub, which is about 1400km north-east of Perth and 300km south of Port Hedland.
While the project had the support of Ford Australia – the global “home room” for the Ranger ute – the autonomous technology was in fact developed by Fortescue.
The system primarily uses sensors mounted on the roof and bull bar; the Ford Rangers are powered by 3.2-litre five-cylinder turbo diesel engines matched to a six-speed automatic.
The mining company hasn't revealed the top speed of the autonomous Ford Rangers but, given they will be based on the closed roads of a mining site, it's expected they won't be operated above 60km/h.
Video footage (see link at the bottom of this story) shows a vehicle operating without a driver – or anyone else on board – at about 50kmh. An operator in a control room remotely stops or starts each car at the press of a button, and plots its course.
The autonomous Ford Ranger utes have been built to“to improve the efficiency of the Christmas Creek mobile maintenance team” and “remove the need for fitters to make around 12,000 28-kilometre round trips annually to collect equipment and parts,” says Fortescue.
The autonomous Ford Rangers are equipped with an integrated lidar and radar “perception system” that can automatically detect and avoid obstacles.
“The successful deployment of (the autonomous Ford Ranger utes) at Christmas Creek will provide the opportunity to implement a similar system at other operational sites to improve safety, productivity and efficiency,” says Fortescue.
The Ford Ranger was selected for the mining company’s latest autonomous vehicle program because it has “integrated smart vehicle hardware and driver assist technology, with features like electric power steering providing a great foundation for this work”.
In a media statement, Fortescue chief executive officer Elizabeth Gaines said: “The autonomous … vehicle project is a significant advancement of our in-house automation capability, building on our leading autonomous haulage system program, which has already delivered significant productivity and efficiency improvements for the business.”
Ford Australia president and chief executive officer Andrew Birkic said Ford was proud the Ranger had been selected for Fortescue’s latest autonomous vehicle program.
“Ford globally is at the forefront of research into autonomous vehicles, and working with companies like Fortescue is critical to gaining an insight into specific user applications,” Mr Birkic said in a media statement.