Putting intelligent mobility through its paces

Jonathan Newell visited HORIBA MIRA to discuss the future of intelligent mobility and how tomorrow’s cars will be tested to withstand the rigours of autonomy.

Aerial view of the HORIBA MIRA proving groundsEstablished in 1946 to serve the British post-war motor industry with research, development and testing expertise, the Motor Industry Research Association has gone through many changes in the intervening years but still prides itself as being an organisation that has the skills, knowledge and experience to help drive the automotive industry into a future that has staggering potential and more than a little uncertainty.

Now known as HORIBA MIRA, the company was bought last year by the Japanese testing specialist company, HORIBA, a move that provided additional resources and an influx of funding. The acquisition came at a time of big changes with the 750 acres of proving grounds now being much more than the old airfield it once was.

There are still remnants of the past there including the original control tower and a few of the older buildings but this is a place where change is a very welcome way of life. Now, it is a hub of automotive engineering excellence with an associated Technology Park into which over £50 million has so far been invested and which is home to such illustrious international brands as Jaguar, Land Rover, Aston Martin, Bosch, Bentley and GKN.

In the modern “Control Centre” building at the heart of the proving grounds, I met HORIBA MIRA’s Commercial Manager for Intelligent Mobility & Future Transport Technologies, Chris Reeves, to talk about the concept of intelligent mobility and the future of cars featuring greater levels of autonomy and connectivity.

What is intelligent Mobility?

Chris described intelligent mobility as being the third revolution to affect the automotive industry, the first being Henry Ford’s production processes which brought the technology to mass market and the second being the low carbon initiatives that began at the turn of the last decade. The term “revolution” in this respect isn’t overstating the implications of intelligent mobility; the changes will be far reaching.

Connectivity will bring a new environment to car occupants, who will experience more choice in entertainment, communication and utilities to help them navigate and make destination and route decisions based on the instant availability of localised information such as traffic alerts, weather reports and even the vicinity of local attractions based on the occupants’ preferences.

With such availability of resources, internet content and communication tools, there’s also the potential for driver distraction but safety is at the heart of intelligent mobility and a major part of the development work. Connectivity is also a pre-requisite for autonomy, the technology that will eventually remove the need for a driver to perform the process of getting from A to B.

According to Chris, this will certainly always remain optional since the act of driving is often a pleasure which most wouldn’t want to relinquish entirely. However, the ability to have fully automatic control also provides great benefits in terms of choice and extended mobility. The choice will be given to the driver to relinquish control on boring long haul motorway drives or in congested commutes, situations in which the time could be used more productively. Extended mobility will be available to those who would otherwise have to face the decision to give up driving due to failing health or advancing age.

Degrees of Autonomy

There is still some way to go before fully driverless cars will be on public roads but the process of getting there has already started, according to Chris. He referred to the different levels of automation as defined by the SAE J3016 standard. Rated between Levels 0 and 5, degrees of autonomy range from no automation at all (at level 0) to full automation across all modes of driving (at level 5).

Existing commercially available technology such as Autonomous Emergency Braking (AEB), lane departure warning systems, Adaptive Cruise Control (ACC) and self-parking cars have started to take the industry into level 1 (driver assistance) or level 2 (partial automation). Automatic parking requires the performance of accelerator and steering functions to be carried out without any driver intervention at all and is currently the most advanced level of automation that’s available to the buying public.

In all cases up to and including partial automation at level 2, environmental monitoring and fallback operations are performed by the human in the driving seat. The big challenge being presented to the industry now is to cross the barrier into system-based environmental monitoring and fallback.

Crossing the autonomy barrier

At SAE Level 3 Automation, monitoring of the driving environment is carried out by the system but the responsibility for fallback control remains with the driver. At levels 4 (high automation) and 5 (full automation), the system is expected to continue safe operation in all circumstances without the opportunity for fallback.

Crossing this barrier requires a significant change in technology, with connectivity being at the forefront. Unlike the infotainment and navigation system inbound communications, the dedicated short range vehicle-to-vehicle and vehicle-to-infrastructure (V2x) communications needed for safe autonomous control need to operate at very low latency with high reliability and with immunity to external interruptions from, for example, cyber attacks.

Only when there is such a cooperative and reliable environment with the infrastructure and other transport systems can the autonomy barrier between automation levels 3 and 4 be crossed.

Testing vehicles of the future

HORIBA MIRA test vehicle on the city circuitTo demonstrate the facilities at HORIBA MIRA’s disposal, Chris Reeves took me out for a drive around the proving grounds, a bewildering mixture of circuits, tracks and road surfaces that requires centralised control to keep all the test traffic separated and working to schedules and allocated slots, a reflection of the heritage of the Warwickshire site as a wartime aerodrome.

To reach the “city circuit”, which has been specially designed for testing connected and autonomous vehicles, we drove across other tracks constructed to simulate the least friendly driving environments, including precisely engineered potholes, adverse camber, undulations and abrupt changes in surface texture.

By comparison to these rough tracks, the city circuit seemed simple with its smooth, well-marked surfaces, clear junctions and signage gantries. However, its benign appearance hides the true rigours of the testing ground which are electronic in their nature. The signal environment of the proving ground can be designed, configured and re-configured to precise specifications electronically. Signals are beamed to the test vehicle, whose sensors should detect infrastructure communications, the presence of pedestrians and the quality of navigation signals.

In this way, the circuit can stress the performance limits of autonomous control, collision avoidance and GPS guidance systems, all simulated on a laptop computer in the control centre. What seems to be a bare track in the Warwickshire countryside to the human eye is a virtual traffic environment to the car’s computer systems. It could be a city-scape with GPS canyons, careless pedestrians, heavy traffic, tunnels, gantry signs and other structures.

Simulating such an environment and being able to configure it in any way the test engineers deem fit are of paramount importance in developing and testing autonomous control systems for the car of the future. Real time kinematic GPS and vehicle tracking throughout its time on the circuit then enable the engineers to evaluate the performance of the car and what adjustments are necessary to make it safe to use in a real rather than a virtual environment.

Jonathan Newell

Studied Engineering at Loughborough University and now involved in broadcast and technical journalism. Jonathan is based in London and Almaty.

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