Articles, Level 5 Autonomous Driving, Testing & Validation

Going for An Autonomous Vehicle Test Drive

What can we really expect from the future of autonomous vehicles? That’s the never-ending question, but the answer finally came into focus during a recent test drive with Dataspeed, a developer of drive-by-wire ADAS kits.

Dataspeed equipped two automobiles – a Lincoln MKZ and a Chrysler Pacifica – with modules that allowed the vehicles to drive themselves. Commercial deployment could come at a later date, but the company is currently focused on working with OEMs who are in the testing phase of development. To demonstrate the potential of driverless cars, Dataspeed unleashed its two vehicles in a closed course environment. Curious passengers could hop in and watch as the safety driver sat back and allowed the LiDAR-equipped vehicles to take over.

Stopping For Danger

The vehicle started by gradually speeding up as it navigated around a flat oval track. That, on its own, was nothing out of the ordinary. But as the Pacifica (the vehicle used for my test) continued down its path, it didn’t take more than a few seconds for me to forget where I was. Everything seemed so normal. I had to peek over at the safety driver just to remind myself that I was, in fact, in a driverless car. When another vehicle drove in front of us (a planned demonstration), the Pacifica stopped and waited until the other car passed before resuming. This was an expected function – if nothing else, AVs should be able to brake on their own. But it was still impressive to see it in person without any errors.

That said, the system itself was not fully aware of its surroundings. It wasn’t capable of reading the road, per se; the route was pre-programmed, creating more of a geofenced experience. But it could use LiDAR to determine if something was in its way and react accordingly.

Teleoperation

When the Pacifica encountered a more difficult obstacle, that’s when it was time for the teleoperator to take over. In this case, that provided backseat passengers with the unique opportunity to take control. Using a headrest-mounted display and a Logitech G29 Driving Force Racing Wheel, the backseat “driver” was able to maneuver around a series of cones and steer the car back to the main course. The actual safety driver handled the gas and brake pedals (for obvious reasons), but the steering function was quite intuitive. It felt like a cross between a video game and real driving, which seemed to be the idea.

In a real-world setting, teleoperators won’t be in your backseat – they’ll be at a command center with multiple monitors and an elaborate control scheme that will allow them to take over when necessary. However, this demo proved that the concept works and that it could allow autonomous vehicles to deploy faster than without teleoperation.

Convincing Demo

Once deployed, autonomous cars will need to know how to handle themselves on any road in virtually any situation. We aren’t there yet, but Dataspeed has made a persuasive argument with these test vehicles. The company has highlighted the tremendous progress that is being made while showing the normalcy of the entire experience.

One day we won’t even think about how cool or innovative this technology is – we’ll just get in and let the car do the rest. But today it’s really amazing to see and experience the beginnings of the mobility revolution.

About the author:

Louis Bedigian is an experienced journalist and contributor to various automotive trade publications. He is a dynamic writer, editor and communications specialist with expertise in the areas of journalism, promotional copy, PR, research and social networking.

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