Finnish Company Completes Autonomous Ride in Snow

Snowy and icy road conditions don’t present a huge challenge to autonomous driving systems; they present huge challenges.

Snow or sleet falling from the sky can obscure the “vision” of AV sensors like Lidar and cameras, inhibiting their ability to detect the car’s surroundings. Even if the sensors themselves are unobstructed, sheets of snow or ice on pavement can block lane markings, limiting an autonomous vehicle’s ability to locate itself on the road. Then there’s the general difficulty of navigating on icy roads. Human drivers rely a lot on feel to maneuver in slippery conditions. Programming that nebulous “feel” into a computer is a true feat of engineering.

But autonomous vehicles don’t get to decide which weather they drive in. They need to be ready for all conditions.

That is why so much attention has been paid to testing driverless cars in wintry conditions. Of course, that can be difficult to do in popular self-driving sites such as California and Arizona. But Finland doesn’t have such problems.

That is what allowed the VTT Technical Research Centre of Finland to develop what it says is the first self-driving car to operate independently on a real snow-covered road. The drive was accomplished in the Northern Finnish town of Muonio by a self-driving car known as Martti. It is one of two AVs designed by VTT. The other’s name is Marilyn.

Martti is built on the chassis of a Volkswagen Touareg. Its journey took place on an “intelligent road” known as Aurora E8. A significant aspect of VTT’s AV testing involves telematic connectivity. The organization is working to develop a 5G system across Finland. By delivering a constant stream of data about road conditions, the intelligent road setup played an essential role in enabling Martti to drive in the snow. The company says it will use similar technology to empower AVs that are built to operate off-road, as well.

“We already have at our disposal an intelligent roadside unit, capable of feeding local information for the insatiable needs of Martti and Marilyn. This cart dubbed MARSU contains measuring devices for friction data and a communications module serving as a base station,” VTT project manager Matti Kutila wrote in a statement. “Furthermore, next spring one of our vehicles can also be spotted in forest environments, when Marilyn and Martti get a new friend capable of tackling all terrains.”

Critically, Martti wasn’t moving along the road at a crawl. Instead, the driverless car traveled at a speed consistent with local traffic in snowy conditions. The team at VTT believes its speed may have even been a record for a self-driving car on snow.

“It probably also made a new world record in fully automated driving, making 40 km/h [24.8 mph] in a snowfall on snow-covered terrain without lane markings,” said Kutila. “It could have had even more speed, but in test driving it is programmed not to exceed the limit of 40 km/h.”

Aurora E8 is something of a hybrid between a normal road and a public testing ground for self-driving and connected cars, so VTT’s claim that Martti was the first fully autonomous vehicle to operate in snowy conditions on a “real” road is open to some interpretation. But the work being done here is important regardless. If driverless cars are the future of transportation, they can’t hibernate during the winter. Like a US Postal worker, neither rain nor snow can stay these AVs from their appointed rounds.

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