Thursday 4 December 2014

UK set to have a driverless hub by 2017

Milton Keynes in the UK looks to be on a collision course with Gothenburg in Sweden as the first to introduce autonomous vehicles.

The city of Gothenburg has pledged itself as the world’s first arena for cars in everyday use to use autonomous driving technology. By 2017, there could be 100 cars using purchased by customers using 50km of roads in and around the Swedish city.

In the UK, a £9 million share of government funding will allow 40 driverless cars to be tested in Milton Keynes. It is expected that by mid-2017 there could be 100 fully autonomous cars operating in the town, sharing pathways with pedestrians and equipped with sensors to avoid collisions.

The funding will contribute to a £20 million project that involves Ford Motor Company, JaguarLandRover (JLR) and the engineering consultancy Arup to test both autonomous (self-drive) cars on public roads as well as self-driving “pods” designed for pedestrian areas.

The three-year project will deliver a fleet of some 40 self-driving pods that will allow a “real life” service model to be tested in Milton Keynes.

The aim of the project is to help establish the UK as a global hub for the development of autonomous vehicle technologies and to integrate driverless vehicles into existing urban environments. It could also begin to consider some of the deeper issues of autonomous vehicles, such as ethical and legal aspects that might arise when vehicles take control and make decisions that affect the life and death of human beings, while engineers at the sharp end address the implications of interfacing and connecting ABS hardware with computer software.

According to Milton Keynes Council the town has established itself as “a leading centre for low-carbon and intelligent autonomous mobility and the home of the transport Systems Catapult and the LUTZ autonomous pods project.”

“The scheme has the potential to change the way transport works and bring real benefits to both the city and our citizens,” added the Council.

The LUTZ (Low-carbon Urban Transport Zone Pathfinder) driverless pods can carry two people each and will be able to travel at a maximum speed of 24km/h.

The Drive Me self-driving cars scheme in Gothenburg has been some time in the making and aims to combine a number of subject areas, including legislation, transport authorities, a major vehicle builder (in this case Volvo Cars) and “real customers”.

The scheme focuses on such areas as how autonomous vehicles bring societal and economic benefits by improving traffic efficiency, the traffic environment and road safety. But from an engineering viewpoint, the research explores the subject of intelligent vehicle control in which sensors and their processing modules offer signals to electronic control modules and thence to both steering force and angle actuators as well as brake actuators, mainly in the form of electric motors. Such work, by implication, also explores the nature and extent of back-up systems to achieve "fail-safe" requirements.

The Gothenburg system is looking at infrastructure requirements for autonomous driving, establishing those traffic situations suitable for autonomous vehicles and checking how surrounding drivers interact with a self-driving car. The Gothenburg scheme however, is not new. In 2012, Europe's first autonomous vehicle road train took to the road outside Barcelona, Spain - a convoy of autonomously-driven Volvo vehicles followed a lead vehicle driven by a professional driver. While in 2013-14, Mercedes-Benz S-, E- and C-Class cars took part in autonomous driving trials in Germany. Nissan too has evolved steer-by-wire systems.  

Whether those associated with the Milton Keynes system have studied already the technology to the same depth as that proposed for the city of Gothenburg remains to be seen. However, the Drive Me scheme in Sweden already has some miles under its belt following its launch in April of this year with the first tests conducted with a modified Volvo S60 passenger car operating on public roads.

The Volvo cars are fitted with ”a forward-looking camera and a laser scanner mounted on a pod behind the rear view mirror; a radar system buried in the nose of the vehicle and sonar emitters positioned around the car. Each car has a GPS unit fitted on the roof and tests have shown that the cars can handle lane following, speed adaption and merging traffic – all on their own account .

The aim of the Gothenburg project is that the vehicle’s autopilot technology can take care of all driving functions so that the car itself can handle all traffic  scenarios, including leaving the traffic flow, and finding a “safe harbour” if for some reason the driver cannot regain control. Also, as with electronic systems fitted to aircraft, some systems will need to be at least duplex; for it is not unknown for a pilot of today's jumbo jets to be caught muttering under his breath, "What is the computer system doing today?"

It has to be assumed that engineers from Ford and JaguarLandRover (it is somewhat ironic that engineers from both of these companies are once more merged under a common umbrella after having gone their separate ways some years ago) have studied the Gothenburg system and already taken on board some of the lessons learned by their Swedish colleagues to an extent that will bring benefits the UK system. Looking to the future, it may take a generation before most of the problems are fully developed - like, for example, blind-spot recognition and night vision systems - and autonomous vehicle can become common-place. 

COMMENT. Several aspects will quickly come to the attention of the UK groups developing this technology, namely the need for much improved sensing (including a need for much improved camera systems), monitoring and regulation of the driving environment, particularly so that the limited tactical capabilities of autonomous driving systems can be accommodated. As with the use of robots in the manufacturing environment, sensing is everything. In other words, Milton Keynes Council will find that it needs “smart roads” as well as “smart cars”. JM

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