Ford’s hands-free driving feature won’t be available until late 2021

Ford

Coming to the Mustang Mach-E, and then to other

Ford announced late last year that the Mustang Mach-E will be the company’s first car to allow hands-free driving in certain situations. Today, the company is opening up about how exactly that technology will work, but it’s also saying that the feature won’t be available until the second half of 2021.

When the Mach-E goes on sale at the end of this year, buyers who want the hands-free driving mode will have to purchase what Ford’s calling the “Active 2.0 Prep Package.” This will make sure the car has the hardware (a forward-facing camera and radar sensors) that’s necessary for the hands-free driving mode, which Ford is calling “Active Drive Assist.” But the Active Drive Assist feature will require a separate purchase of its own, and won’t be available until a software update that’s coming later next year. (The company said it is not yet ready to reveal pricing for any of this.)

Until then, owners will have access to the second generation of Ford’s advanced driver assistance system (ADAS), known as CoPilot 360. This includes improved versions of features like lane centering, adaptive cruise control, active park assist, blind spot assist, and more.

Once it’s ready, Active Drive Assist will be available on highways that have been mapped by Ford. The company says it will have 100,000 miles of divided highways mapped across all 50 states and Canada at launch. The Mustang Mach-E also has an infrared camera system in the steering wheel that will make sure the driver is paying attention to the road when the hands-free mode is engaged.

This combination of driver monitoring and targeted deployment on mapped roads is the same approach that General Motors has taken with Cadillac’s Super Cruise system. The mapped highway requirement means means that Active Driving Assist won’t be as widely available in the early going as something like Tesla’s Autopilot (which is not hands-free), and Ford didn’t say how quickly it will add additional highways. (Super Cruise is now available on at least 200,000 highway miles in the US and Canada.) But it’s a more considered approach that has earned GM plaudits, and so it’s not surprising to see Ford do something so similar.

Where Super Cruise uses a system of lights on the steering wheel to tell the driver when the feature is available, Ford will rely on the digital instrument cluster behind the Mach-E’s steering wheel to convey this information. The screen will show an animation of hands letting go of or grabbing the steering wheel to let drivers know when they can engage Active Drive Assist, or when they need to take back over. When a driver gets on a highway where Active Drive Assist is available, the display will turn blue, and when the feature is active a “bubble” will appear around the virtual car on the display

“It’s a complicated thing to communicate to people … especially when you have [different features like] lane keeping, adaptive cruise, and so on” Darren Palmer, the head of Ford’s global EV division, said on a press call. Palmer says Ford tried out “all different types of graphics, colors, and information to see which of them would be understood by the most people most easily without education.”

Palmer said that drivers will be able to disengage Active Drive Assist by gently moving the steering wheel, which he said he feels is better than the higher amount of force other systems like Super Cruise or Autopilot require.

“On at least one of the popular systems you have to kind of ‘break free’ from it, and it’s very unnerving for people, because they feel like they’re wrestling with it. And so we really wanted to make sure we didn’t have that,” he said.

All driver assistance systems have their limitations, which can become a problem if the humans behind the wheel get too confident in them. In fact, this was one of the overarching themes in the National Transportation Safety Board’s hearing earlier this year regarding Tesla’s Autopilot.

Palmer and Ford engineer Chris Billman said that the camera-based driver monitoring system should help mitigate this problem. Billman also said that Ford carefully chose the language it’s using to name and describe Active Drive Assist and similar features. “We don’t overpromise or imply that the features can do more than they can. We try to make them intuitive and straightforward,” he said

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