JaguarLandRover engineers are confident that when a driver of one of their future all-terrain autonomous vehicles wants to leave the pavement, technology will continue to provide guidance along gravel lanes or mountain trails, automatically checking ahead for anything from changing surfaces to overhead branches and threatening boulders.
And just as future V2V (vehicle to vehicle) communications capability will become available for autonomous on-road driving, it will also be available for off-road, constantly transmitting and updating warning information about obstacles and potential dangers to any following vehicles.
All this is part of a significant R&D program focused on off-road connected convoys. “In the future we will offer autonomous driving over any surface or terrain,” said JLR Product Strategy Director, James Towle.
Over the next four years, JLR will conduct real-world testing of Connected and autonomous technology using a fleet of 100 vehicles. Currently, it is running at least 10 main research projects in this area.
But that doesn’t mean the driver can take a nap while the vehicle claws its way through the jungle. There is a distinct difference between autonomous and driverless system capability, explained Towle. So R&D is concentrating on giving the driver focused technology support: “We aren’t looking at simply replacing the driver,” he said
JLR is also determined to retain the established character of its products while imbuing a different type of emerging trust in the vehicle and its driver-support technologies.
Sensor building blocks
For its autonomous program, JLR is collaborating with Bosch in integrating next-generation sensor technology and processing power. “For example, we are adding more megapixels to stereo cameras,” said Bosch Customer Chief Engineer, Sven Lanwer. “This will increase in future to provide more precise information; bandwidths are going up to give greater capabilities.”
Lanwer works closely with Chris Holmes, JLR’s Senior Manager Research, who said advances in sensor technology allied to software are providing significant new solutions. Ultrasonic sensors developed from those used as parking aids, are part of JLR’s predictive off-road autonomous R&D to anticipate surface changes.
While information quality needs to improve, increased quantity needs to be controlled. Is there a danger of giving the driver too much information by not filtering it sufficiently?
“It is a difficult question to answer,” stated Holmes. “What we are showing you [at JLR’s 300- acre Gaydon, U.K., proving ground] are some baseline building blocks that we are putting in place. It is the art of the possible. Technologies are evolving at a rapid rate based on sensor improvement and, coming together with software advances, are giving high level capabilities. So we are looking at many ways of how to advise the driver.”
This could include increased use of head-up displays and certainly of voice-command systems, the engineers told Automotive Engineering. It is no use in potentially dangerous or stressful situations putting up information on a screen while the driver’s eyes are focused where they should be—outside the cabin. Could tonal gradations of voice alert be considered to soothe and provide confidence without adding to tension? Possibly.
Certainly the driver must have confidence and belief in what the car is telling them, just as he or she has confidence today in brakes and steering operating safely.
Said Towle: “An intelligent car is never distracted because it is connected—it can even be aware of situations developing over the horizon. The aim of our autonomous all-terrain driving research is to make the self-driving car viable in the widest range of real life, on and off-road driving environments and weather conditions.”
He added that over time the driver would indeed learn to “trust” the vehicle.
JLR is confident that this is going to happen. Peter Virk, JLR’s Director of Connected Technologies, added: “In less than three years I predict that every new car sold in the world will be ‘connected’.” But he also stressed that giving the right information at the right time to the driver was essential.
DSRC is key to convoying
While the company is making use of off-the-shelf and established technologies like ultrasonics, radar, stereo cameras, LiDAR and radio systems, these are being improved although it is more a matter of evolution than revolution.
Key autonomous or semi-autonomous programs demonstrated by JLR to the author included Terrain Based Speed Adaptation, which adapts speed automatically to changing surface conditions and also improves comfort via suspension settings. A stereo camera scans the route ahead with features mapped against different target speeds, making decisions about appropriate speeds for conditions.
Surface ID is a fundamental element of autonomous driving on any terrain. Artificial intelligence can assess surroundings and make what JLR describes as “appropriate decisions,” ultrasonic sensors scanning 5 m (15 ft) ahead of the vehicle. Surfaces including sand, gravel and snow are scanned-in to create a database, which is cross-referenced with real time ultrasonic returns, allowing the vehicle to pre-emptively optimize relevant settings.
The Connected Convoy System using wireless Dedicated Short Range Communications (DSRC) uses information including vehicle location, wheel-slip, changes to suspension height and wheel articulation. The DSRC works with current production technologies such as All-Terrain Progress Control and Terrain Response settings.
Although seemingly useful for military applications (a Land Rover bailiwick), a JLR spokesperson said the R&D Connected Convoy system is focused only on civilian applications.
Overhead Clearance Assist, another new system, is aimed at both on- and off-road applications. It can cope with overhanging branches off road or warn the driver that roof-carried objects such as bicycles could cause a problem when entering a low-overhead parking structure. To operate the camera-based system, the driver simply adds the height of anything carried on the roof to the known height of the vehicle and would then be alerted by the system to any likelihood of entrance to a low height area.
On-road technologies under development include a “Safe Pullaway” system to prevent a vehicle colliding with one in front, typically at roundabouts or intersections when driver mental workload is high. A forward facing stereo camera keeps watch on the area immediately ahead of the vehicle. If the driver tries to accelerate from standstill and an object ahead is detected, the car will not move and a visual warning is shown.
Of particular interest in JLR’s on-road technology demonstrations was Co-operative Adaptive Cruise Control (C-ACC) using vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2I) and V2V communications to enhance existing radar ACC systems.
DSRC wireless is used to facilitate reaction within “a few milliseconds” to messages from the vehicle in front. The following vehicles would brake at precisely the same moment and rate as a lead car. This could facilitate autonomous platooning, with a gap time between vehicles of as little as 0.4 s. At present, depending on market, ISO standard for ACC is about 0.8 s.
Sampled by the author on a track, the effect was both worrying (initially) and reassuring (subsequently) as the system was activated. Following very close behind another vehicle improves radar ACC effectiveness but does concentrate the driver’s mind, with a need to overcome the reflex action of braking hard as the red lights of the vehicle ahead illuminate.
Quite what the law would make of this has not been defined. But like most aspects of autonomous driving, it will be legal and driver/vehicle occupant acceptance of such apparently esoteric systems that will determine their introduction—even though their efficacy may have been proven beyond reasonable doubt.