Autonomous cars: almost there...

November 8, 2018

Autonomous cars continue to appeal to our imagination. And although modern-day vehicles already have a lot of “emerging technology” on board, fully autonomous cars will not be available anytime soon. The technological road ahead is beset with challenges and difficulties, but Bosch is convinced that the day will come that the first fully autonomous car takes to the roads... although it probably won’t be tomorrow.

Bosch recently invited us to the Juvincourt test track in France to demonstrate the state of the art of autonomous driving technology. Bosch is a supplier of automotive technology to a large number of brands and this German technology giant is also at the forefront of the development of autonomous technology. As we discovered during the workshops in Juvincourt, automated driving has great consequences for all parts and aspects of a car, from the engine, the brakes and the steering system to the onboard instruments, navigation and sensors, and of course also the connection between the inside and outside of the car. The key to success lies in gaining a good understanding of all systems integrated into the vehicle. Bosch believes that these ingredients are absolutely essential:

Connected horizon
Self-driving cars use information about their surroundings that goes far beyond what is detected by the car’s sensors. They need real-time traffic data, for example, including information about traffic jams and accidents, which means that they have to be connected to a server. Bosch has developed the ‘connected environment’ to address this need: a system that can carry out a dynamic analysis of the car’s route and calculate any adjustments to the driving strategy. The connected horizon gives automated cars the ability to anticipate, which greatly increases comfort and safety during the trip. Connected cars are warned when they approach a danger zone, such as when navigating a bend or popping up from behind a hill, and can slow down earlier.

Electric steering
Safe electric power steering is one of the most important technologies required for autonomous driving. The integrated safety system allows the driver or the car to continue to remain in control of crucial driving functions, whilst retaining at least 50% of the electric power steering in the unlikely event of a malfunction.

Electronic Stability Control also has a key role to play during driving. If the car itself becomes responsible for the driving process, this comes with a number of highly specific requirements for its safety systems, such as the brakes. In order to guarantee maximum availability, even in the event of a malfunction, the system must feature a certain level of redundancy for safety reasons. Both ESC and iBooster, an electromechanical brake booster, are capable of slowing down the vehicle independently, without requiring any intervention on the part of the driver.

Automated driving implies a new way of operating a car, which means new MMI, or Man-Machine Interaction, concepts will be required. Drivers must be able to intuitively understand and use the system. The TFT instrument cluster, which combines maximal flexibility with regard to content processing with a clear display on onboard monitors, is a good example of this. Bosch displays information such as speed, navigation and warnings at eye height, in direct view of the driver. This information is projected onto the surroundings of the vehicle, as it were (approximately two meters in front of the car), giving the driver the sense of blending into the environment.

The Bosch iBooster is a completely vacuum-independent electromechanical brake booster that meets all the requirements for a modern brake system. This system can be used with any type of engine and is particularly suitable for hybrid and electrical systems.

Without high-resolution, current maps, autonomous driving simply is not possible. These maps provide the car with information about changing traffic conditions that goes far beyond what the detection zone of the car’s onboard sensors are capable of. The radar and video sensors collect and share real-time traffic data, which are then used to create the required high-resolution maps.

In addition to radar, video and ultrasonic sensors, Bosch also equips its automated test vehicles with lidar sensors. Light Detection and Ranging (or Laser Imaging Detection and Ranging) is a technology that determines the distance to an object or surface by means of laser pulses. The various sensors complement each other perfectly and automated vehicles can reliably detect their surroundings and determine their driving strategy by combining the data these sensors collect.

Radar sensors
Radar sensors, one of the different types of sensors the cars are equipped with, provide relevant, 360-degree information about the car’s surroundings up to a distance of 250 meters. The main task of the radar sensors is to detect objects and to measure their speed and position relative to the moving vehicle.

Ultrasonic sensors
Automated cars use ultrasonic sensors to explore the immediate surroundings of the car (up to 6 meters), particularly at low speeds, such as during parking manoeuvres. These sensors work according to the sonar principle, which e.g. bats also use to navigate. They emit short ultrasonic signals, which then bounce off any obstacles. The echo signals are picked up by the sensors and analysed by a central computer.

Video sensor
Bosch’s stereo video camera has a range of 50 meters and provides important optical information about the car’s surroundings. The two highly sensitive image sensors provide high-resolution footage and are capable of processing high-contrast images. The stereo video camera detects objects and determines how far they are from the car while also identifying open space. The information provided by this sensor is combined with data collected by sensors operating according to different principles. Together they result in a model of the car’s surroundings, which can be used to determine a driving strategy.

(Not) behind the wheel

During our time on the Juvincourt track, we simply had to see a demonstration of autonomous technology. We have already seen quite a lot of this technology in cars that are already available on the market (lane assist, traffic jam assistant, automatic emergency stop at low speeds, parking assistants,...), so we were not exactly wowed. It must be said, however, that the systems are subject to constant fine-tuning and that new features are continually being added to increase safety and/or comfort.

To give an example, we were chauffeured around in a Range Rover Velar equipped with a Lane Keeping Support (LKS) and stereo video. This system can detect vehicles at a distance of 120m and pedestrians at 50m, in addition to ensuring that the vehicle stays in its lane. We also drove a Maserati Ghibli with Highway Assist Base Level 2, a combination of ACC (Adaptive Cruise Control), Stop & Go and Lane Centering. You could theoretically use this technology to take to the highway semi-autonomously, but the car did have pressure sensors in the steering wheel that warn you to take the wheel again after a few seconds.

In terms of autonomous driving, Tesla’s Highly Automated Driving Level 3 is still the most impressive offering. The electric Model S can drive autonomously on motorways due to its arsenal of onboard technology: LIDAR, a high-precision GPS, 2 LRRS’s (Long-Range Radar Sensors) and 4 MRRS’s (Medium-Range Radar Sensors). This model can also perform autonomous overtaking maneouvres.

Mercedes-Benz and Bosch have also collaborated on the development of a type of “valet parking”, which entails the car parking itself.
Drivers can now automatically make their car park in a designated spot by means of a smartphone command, without having to monitor the car in the process. This not only requires technology in the car itself, but also in the parking garage to guide the car. Autonomous parking with a driver on-board may seem like a luxury feature at first, but can help save a lot of time and space when used on a large scale. If people no longer have to get out of parked cars, cars can be parked closer together and less space will be needed.

future of urban mobility automated taxis
On-demand transport will be a tough competitor of public transportation. The autonome car will play a big role in that.

How autonomous is autonomous?

It is easy to find yourself buried in an avalanche of terms and gradations when it comes to autonomous driving.* Manufacturers would be happy to let you know which level of autonomous driving their cars are capable of, but what do these levels actually mean? Here is a brief list of explanations.

  • Level 0: Systems are capable of intervening, but drivers cannot rely on them entirely. The automatic emergency stop is an example of this.
  • Level 1: The driver and autonomous technologies work together to drive the car. Adaptive cruise control, which involves the driver steering the car and the car determining its speed, is an example of this.
  • Level 2: The car takes full control, but the driver must be able to intervene at any given time. With this type of technology, the car often ‘forces’ you to keep your hands on the wheel.
  • Level 3: The car is capable of steering itself in specific situations, such as on motorways, allowing the driver to carry out other tasks. The driver must take control of the steering wheel when prompted to do so by the car, however.
  • Level 4: In certain circumstances, such as in traffic jams or adapted cities, the car is capable of driving completely autonomously. If the driver does not take the wheel in other situations that are not supported by the car, it can autonomously navigate to a safe place and park there.
  • Level 5: The car can drive completely autonomously. At this level, it does not even need a steering wheel.

(*)Autonomous driving up to level 2 is legally permitted in Belgium.

A decade away?

It is still very unclear when the first completely autonomous car will be introduced to the market. According to Joao Carreira, marketing director of the Chassis System Controls department at Bosch, we might still have to wait another decade.

One of the key technological hurdles to be taken is that of data. An autonomous car will have to process so much data that it will have to be equipped with CPUs (Central Processing Units) with a processing speed of several teraflops. To give you an indication: a 1-teraflop CPU can process 100,000,000,000 calculations per second. According to Carreiro, the level 5 autonomous car we are talking about will, although it is connected, have to be sufficiently independent to interpret all traffic conditions itself and respond accordingly. Bosch puts no trust in cloud-based solutions that allow a car to function solely by means of connectivity, because networks are prone to outages. In that case, you will end up with an autonomous car driving “blindly”, ecause it does not have access to the data it needs. There is a considerable list of other challenges, too: a need for more sensors, greater reliability and safety, 360-degree perception in all conditions (rain, tunnels, people or animals who appear unexpectedly, etc...), artificial intelligence (planning, decision-making and execution), localisation (need for accurate, up-to-date maps), and, last but not least, legislation, which will have to establish global standards. Carreiro believes that certifying an autonomous car by means of existing validation processes would take 5,000 years, so in this area a lot of “out-of-the-box” thinking will be needed as well.

future of urban mobility automated taxis
Mercedes-Benz and Bosch have created technology together that makes a car park itself.
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