Autonomous driving technology is taking another step forward as Ford has begun testing its Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle at night without its headlights turned on.

The tests are being conducted at Ford's Arizona Proving Ground and the automaker says they represent an "important development" in the field of autonomous driving technology.  As the company explains, the tests prove the car's LiDAR sensors and virtual driver software is "robust enough to steer flawlessly around winding roads" without the use of cameras.

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In order to drive in pitch-dark conditions, the car uses a high-resolution 3D map that has information about the road as well as details about landmarks such as signs, buildings, and trees.  The vehicle then uses LiDAR pulses to pinpoint its location on the map in realtime. While Ford admits it is better to have multiple sensors - such as cameras, radar, and LiDAR - working together, the automaker notes the LiDAR system is good enough to enable the car to drive autonomously by itself.

According to Ford's autonomous vehicle technical leader Jim McBride, “Thanks to LiDAR, the test cars aren’t reliant on the sun shining, nor cameras detecting painted white lines on the asphalt. In fact, LiDAR allows autonomous cars to drive just as well in the dark as they do in the light of day.”

Autonomous driving technology could save countless lives when used at night as the National Highway Traffic Safety Administration has found the fatality rate during "dark hours" is nearly three times higher than in times of daytime.

Gallery: Ford Fusion Hybrid autonomous research vehicle

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