On Track for Autonomy

We've seen autonomous vehicles driving on carefully chosen city streets, and they've been tested everywhere from parking lots to OEMs' regular test tracks. But, as advanced safety systems get smarter and move toward true autonomy, there's a need for dedicated testing facilities where smart cars can come up against real-world situations including pedestrians, bicyclists and blind intersections.

Two new facilities dedicated to active safety and autonomous driving aim to provide such realistic situations, but in a controlled environment. Sweden's AstaZero and the University of Michigan's Mobility Transformation Center have different designs and business models, providing an informative look at how best to serve OEMs, suppliers and academic researchers.

Smart tracks at AstaZero

The name AstaZero comes from Active Safety Test Area and Sweden's Vision Zero, which is aiming for zero traffic fatalities by 2020. The testing facility, opened in August 2014, was designed specifically for studying vehicle dynamics, driver behavior, vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure technology, the functional reliability of automotive equipment and communications technology.

"We have defined every meter of the facility for use in simulations. It's the first full-scale facility dedicated to active safety," says AstaZero CEO Pether Wallin. "Other tracks test equipment lifecycles and performance. This is just for technical tests."

Its scope is impressive: a total surface area of 2 million square meters, with 250 square meters that include a variety of paved surfaces. It comprises four test environments: rural road, multilane road, city area and high-speed area. Although vehicle-to-infrastructure systems are not yet in place, the entire facility has conduits for electricity, communications and fiber optics.

There are also 12 places where researchers can place simulated hazards; for example, at one spot, a life-size plastic moose stands ready to pop out in front of a car. Robot-controlled "balloon cars," regular vehicles operated by human drivers or remote-controlled, and dummies wired to fool smart cameras and infrared sensors are available to simulate dangers.

The design process took four years, with substantial input from 10 partners, including OEMs, suppliers and governmental agencies. The industrial partners are AB Volvo, Volvo Car ADAS systems provider Autoliv, and Scania–a commercial vehicle OEM.

The facility is a bit like a movie lot, with a warehouse of scenery and props available for rent. In the "city section," two-story wooden flats form five city blocks; eventually, this will increase to 24 blocks. A photomontage of Harlem storefronts wraps the flats, adding verisimilitude.

The city section can be configured to include bicycle lanes, parking spots or crosswalks, thanks to temporary striping and a wide variety of props and accoutrements that are warehoused and ready for use.

The tracks are faced with three different kinds of guardrails to enable OEMs to train autonomous driving and automatic lane-keeping systems to understand different configurations that drivers may encounter.

Per Lenhoff, manager, active safety testing, for Volvo Cars Safety Centre, notes that while computer simulations are important for testing individual safety systems, carmakers also need to test full-scale vehicles under real-world circumstances.

"You need to see how the driver will behave when he or she gets interventions from the car, and see how the driver interacts with the car system. You build up a real-world scenario," he says.

All this did not come cheap. The total cost was 500 million SEK, or $64.1 million. Partners contributed money, and additional funding came from the Swedish government, investors and loans. Because of the government investment, access to the test track is available to all.

Wallin says the not-for-profit, public/private partnership model was essential: "Universities could not cope with this size of an investment, and neither could any of our partners.

Having a private/public partnership model makes it possible for us to offer both academia and different companies, from suppliers to OEMs, to actually book time at our place." AstaZero forecasts revenue of $5.6 million in 2015.

AstaZero has its own staff of engineers who assist in running tests and analyzing results; it's also equipped to provide turnkey testing services.

It will also maintain databases of test results in order to develop design guidelines and best practices. Lenhoff says that Volvo plans to use AstaZero's data on accidents and the time periods just preceding them to develop new test methods.

A new phase for UMTRI

The University of Michigan's Transportation Research Institute is readying itself for the next generation of ADAS testing with its development of the 32-acre Mobility Transportation Center (MTC).

Scheduled to be completed in the fall of 2015, it will include four-lane roads with intersections, roadway markings, traffic signs and signals, sidewalks, benches, simulated buildings, streetlights, parked cars, pedestrians and obstacles such as construction barriers.

All the traffic controls and sensors being installed will be on a traffic-control network that will be continually in operation regardless of what kind of vehicle is actually driving on the road.

MTC's research areas will include real-world testing with large cohorts of drivers in real, active traffic on roads in Ann Arbor and across Southeastern Michigan. Vehicle-to-infrastructure communications, as well as vehicle-to-vehicle, seem likely to play a bigger role here than in Sweden, thanks to the infrastructure that UMTRI installed for the Safety Pilot Model Deployment that the university hosted for the U.S. Department of Transportation.

The 12 founding partners are comprised of OEMs and suppliers, including Delphi, Toyota, Ford, Nissan, GM and Honda; but also State Farm, Verizon and Xerox, contributing a minimum of $1 million over three years.

Although this is a public/private partnership, MTC was built for the needs of UM's researchers, according to James Sayer, ‎research scientist at the University of Michigan Transportation Research Institute. He says the test facility was designed exclusively by the university and an outside design firm.

"It was always envisioned as something very specific to what we perceived our needs to be. We didn't go out and canvass the industry. Based on our own experience, we designed in the attributes we thought were needed most."

That experience includes, of course, the Model Deployment that the university hosted in conjunction with the U.S. Dept. of Transportation, which has informed the design of the facility for connected vehicles. MTC also will allow for testing of automated driving systems and autonomous vehicles; a different set of university faculty have been working on autonomous driving independent of the Safety Pilot.

Says Sayer, "We met multiple times, identifying the mix of real-world driving environments that [would reasonably occur while driving] — things that happen fairly frequently but nonetheless will be challenging for either autonomous or connected vehicles."

Because the facility was built contiguous to the existing UMTRI facility, it can take advantage of some of those roadways and buildings. In addition to cost savings, Sayer thinks that this on-campus location will make it much more likely for students to visit.

"We are focusing on the educational component," Sayer says.

The MTC will not be a track for hire. Sayer says, "It's intended to first support research conducted by the Mobility Research Center and other research for the university faculty. Then, to support the needs of members of the Mobility Transportation Center."

The facility has already been paid for in full, but Sayer says there will be some kind of cost-recovery mechanism to cover ongoing maintenance.

UMTRI anticipates a lifespan of at least eight years for the MTC. "Whether there's still a need for it after that is anybody's guess," Sayer says. "I personally think there will be, but maybe not as great as a need, if for no reason than that we and others will have accomplished much over the next eight years. [By that time,] some questions will already be answered."

To get to grips with the here and now of autonomous driving and how you can prepare your business for the future, take a look at TU-Automotive Detroit (June 3-4, 2015). Its dedicated to the future of automotive technology and innovation. 


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