Ford's pedestrian detection system knows where you're walking, even if you don't

Ford's new system can detect walkers who are distracted by their smartphones, even before they've stepped off the sidewalk. 

Mark Schiefelbein/AP/File
Attendees take photos of a Ford F-150 Raptor pickup truck by smartphones at a promotional event for Ford ahead of the biennial Auto China car show in Beijing.

If you own a mobile phone--especially a smartphone--you may have noticed some changes in yourself the past few years. Maybe you've begun communicating exclusively in emoji. Maybe you've become incapable of interacting with non-touchscreens. But one thing's nearly certain: that mini computer in your pocket is proving to be a constant distraction.

While it's obviously dangerous to text while driving, it's also dangerous to text while walking. The National Safety Council has launched campaigns to keep distracted pedestrians safe, and states like Arkansas, Illinois, Nevada, New Jersey, and New York have all tried to pass laws that would prevent anyone from using a hand-held mobile device while walking. (The town of Rexburg, Idaho even succeeded.)

Automakers are doing their part to address the problem, too. Companies like Toyota and Volvo have launched advanced pedestrian-detection systems, and soon, so will Ford.

What's interesting is that Ford's new Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection system doesn't just spot "petextrians" in the road, it can even identify those that haven't yet stepped off the sidewalk.

During tests of the system--which relies on both cameras and radar--Ford amassed some 240 terabytes of data. It's used that data to teach its safety system to recognize scenarios where distracted pedestrians may walk into the path of the car.

When that happens, the system uses a visual and audible warning to cue the driver. (It also mutes the audio system, just in case the driver has the volume cranked up.) If the driver doesn't respond, the system can apply the car's brakes by itself, avoiding or reducing the severity of a collision with the pedestrian.

The system isn't perfect, though. For example, it only works during daylight hours when the weather is clear and when the car is traveling 50 mph or slower. It also isn't effective with cyclists who are moving in the opposite direction from a vehicle (for example, when a bike is traveling toward a car). Ford says that it's working on improvements that will allow it to work under a broader range of conditions.

The Pre-Collision Assist with Pedestrian Detection system will debut on the  2017 Ford Fusion, with other models to follow.

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