JLR Takes to the Dirt to Advance Driverless Cars

Pushing tech to extremes improves it, Jaguar Land Rover’s Nigel Clarke tells Eric Volkman.

It was inevitable that autonomous research would veer off the streets. After all, the more adventurous of us occasionally free our vehicles from the asphalt and take them into nature.

However, it was perhaps more inevitable that Jaguar Land Rover (JLR), maker of some of the hardiest vehicles in history, would launch a research project dedicated to off-road autonomy. This past May, the storied British automaker announced the launch of its Cortex project, aimed at developing autonomy in a wide range of off-road conditions. It is collaborating with the University of Birmingham on the effort.

TU-Automotive spoke to JLR’s Level 5 all surface advanced sensing senior manager Nigel Clarke about Cortex, and the broader future of his company’s self-driving efforts.

Q. Why are you taking self-driving research into the woods and onto the hills?

“Self-driving technology relies on detection of road markings requiring clear markings and good weather. In reality, driving is never that simple. Road markings can be unclear, faded or obscured and weather and dirt can impact sensors. Taking autonomy off-road forces us to test our vehicles in the most extreme road and weather conditions. In doing so we will ensure that our self-driving vehicles will be the most capable on and off-road.”

Q. When did the Cortex project formally begin?

“Cortex was announced as part of the third round of Connected and Autonomous Vehicle funding from public “innovation agency” Innovate UK in March 2018. However, elements and features of the project have been going on for some time. We first spoke publicly about All Terrain Progress Control and Terrain Based Speed Adaptation in 2016 which certainly laid the foundations for this project. As an organization we’ve been working on autonomy for many years, UK Autodrive for example which has just shown Level 4 autonomy in Milton Keynes and Coventry City centers, began in 2015.”

Q. Are you concerned that your competition might take this as incentive to launch their own off-road autonomous projects?

“Not at all, there are so many key players in the world of self-driving that it would be a great surprise if no one else was working on this too! Self-driving is such a multi-faceted challenge requiring help from infrastructure, governments, academic institutions and specialist areas of expertise. Collaboration helps us to accelerate technology advancements and I’m positive that introducing competition only furthers this too.”

Q. It’s obvious that off-road autonomy has considerable obstacles. At this stage, what has been the most challenging aspect of the Cortex project?

“Its early days for Cortex but as we mentioned earlier we have been doing pre-work in this area. Historically, we have taken the results of Tier 1 suppliers to use in our products and have not worked directly with the technology and chip suppliers ourselves. So, we’ve had to build relationships with these companies to get access to raw data and the latest developments in hardware. The Tier 2’s have been very welcoming, their view being that it helps them get better understanding of what the end-user really needs from the technology. We now have raw data and the next challenge is “Big Data” and how to extract the information we believe we want from it.”

Q. You are conducting your research in England. Will you also develop and test off-road autonomy in other geographies and climates?

“We already test our off-road features around the world – we’ve just completed testing of other technologies in Arizona, Sweden, Dubai and India. So, yes we will test around the world.”

Q. Will we see intermediate stages of off-road assisted driving in your vehicles before a 100% autonomous car is finalized?

“Yes, for many self-driving can seem a daunting prospect and so it is hugely important that we introduce automated features gradually in an incremental and digestible fashion. This will help customers to adapt driving styles and realize the true value and potential of the features. In the short term, future it’s going to be challenging having automated and non-automated vehicles on the road at the same time and so we must be cautious of this in how we deploy various degrees of autonomy. Over the next ten years we will see a steady climb to our fully autonomous offering.”

Q. Roughly how long do you believe it will take for you to develop fully autonomous off-road capability?

“It’s difficult to put an exact date to this, whilst there are technical challenges for the project we have to overlay the societal challenges as well. For example, will there be an appetite from our customers or will the infrastructure and road networks be ready, how will the legislative framework support autonomy? That said we have an ambitious approach and hope we can lead the conversation in order to see a fully autonomous off-road capable vehicle within the decade.”

Q. How large is your team, and might it expand in future?

“Jaguar Land Rover is working hard to expand its Autonomy team – we recently opened facilities in Shannon and Manchester. We also have teams now in place in Portland, USA and Shanghai, China. Talking numbers around the Cortex project is difficult as its part of a bigger network of activities needed to deliver autonomy but, yes, the team is expanding rapidly.”

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