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The rise of robotic cars

Riita Ekholm | 13.6.2016

​Vehicles are rapidly becoming more technologically advanced thanks to digitalisation. Connected cars have a huge impact on the national economy. The NordicWay project, which paves the way for road transport automation and increases the safety of road users, has progressed to its pilot phase.

My summer party is about to begin, and I am nervous. I ordered everything online. I am now looking at a graphene map I have laid out. A few green dots are still approaching my location. My guests do not know where they are headed. The invitation included a ticket for a pick-up service. Everyone was picked up from their home to be transported here in a shared robotic shuttle.

I may be the only one in the bunch who still drives a conventional car. There would not be space for many cars to park here anyway. Parking spaces in towns have also begun to disappear as demand for responsive transport, robotic transport, and telepresence have increased”. This is a picture painted by technological visionary Risto Linturi in his Traffic Data Visions report for the Finnish Transport Agency.

His vision of 2030 may not be very far from reality. Google and Tesla have shown the way for “no-hands” driving. Autonomous vehicles that use their own sensors to observe their surroundings have been an everyday phenomenon for a while. An indicator light comes on to warn drivers of slippery road surfaces.

“Robotic cars are the highest level of automated vehicles. Transport as we know it will have been completely transformed 50 years from now”, explains Project Manager Ilkka Kotilainen from the Finnish Transport Agency.

Vehicles are rapidly becoming more technologically advanced thanks to digitalisation. They already feature a large number of sensors that allow the in-car computer to detect changes in the car and its surroundings. A study on a metropolitan vision for automated transport calculated that driverless robotic cars could save several billions of euros per year in Finland in the 2020s and as much as EUR 100 billion per year by the following decade.

Technological visionary Risto Linturi also points out that the annual costs of road traffic accidents are estimated at approximately EUR 2 billion.

IMP_1_16_nordic_way_ristolinturi2_160x190_pieni_henkilokuva.jpg
 

Risto Linturi.

Safety first

The Nordic countries launched the three-year NordicWay pilot project as part of the EU’s Connecting Europe programme in the summer of 2015. The aim is to prepare for the adoption of the European Union’s ITS Directive, as its regulations on provision of safety-related traffic information, which is vital for traffic safety, will enter into force in the next few years.

“The pilot project also helps to pave the way for road transport automation”, says Ilkka Kotilainen.
The Directive is designed to increase the safety of pedestrians, cyclists, and other road users. It identifies eight types of safety messages concerning various dangers of road transport, six of which are being tested in Finland: unprotected accident sites, animals or objects on the road, unmanaged blockage of a road, exceptional weather conditions, reduced visibility and short-term road works.

“Almost three hundred people in Finland and a total of approximately 25,000 people in Europe die in road traffic accidents every year”, says Kotilainen to explain the significance of the pilot project in reducing the number of accidents.

According to him, human error is the cause of 80% of all traffic accidents. For as long as there is a human behind the wheel, transport can never be completely safe.

The project is led by the Finnish Transport Agency together with the Finnish Transport Safety Agency. VTT was chosen to carry out an impact assessment on the pilot. HERE, a mapping business recently sold by Nokia to the German car manufacturers Audi, BMW and Daimler, has developed an application for the project and is leading a consortium comprising HERE as well as Nokia, Elisa, Infotripla and Solita.

The project is due to be completed and its findings reported by the end of 2017.

Cooperative cars

There is nothing new about sending safety messages as such. Drivers have got used to radio programmes being interrupted by news of serious crashes or other traffic incidents over the decades.

According to Kotilainen, the pan-Nordic Connected Cars pilot project is a natural next step towards investigating the potential of new services together with road users. The only difference is that information is now more up-to-date and targeted at specific stretches of roads.

Short-range communication between vehicles, a form of wireless networking, has been studied in Europe for almost a decade already.

“Special short-range communication base stations have been set up along roads at regular intervals for some corridors in Europe. These allow vehicles to communicate with infrastucture”, Kotilainen explains.

This would not be economically viable in a sparsely populated country such as Finland, especially as the mobile network covers the whole country, including Lapland.

“The question is whether cellular communication can be enabled in some cases with vehicles and mobile phones as reliably as with short-range technology”, Kotilainen says.

Transport management is an exciting prospect not just for drivers but also for transport hubs and, in extreme cases, also emergency services.

“In the winter, heavy snow can hinder traffic, and information about poor visibility can be disseminated to approaching cars. The same information can also be relayed to traffic management centres that can communicate with vehicles. In the future, it will be possible to send real-time information to snow plough operators. This would also allow road users to be notified of where and when they will encounter a snow plough.”

Automation progresses in stages, and, at the moment, vehicles and road users take information from their surroundings and relay it to others if, for example, an elk has been spotted on the road.
“Communication between vehicles and infrastructure via the mobile network is a new development that is spreading slowly around the world”, says Kotilainen.

IMP_1_16_nordic_way_Ilkka_Kotilainen_.jpg
 

Ilkka Kotilainen. ​Photo: Roope Permanto

Green light

The pilot project officially began along the E18 between Helsinki and Turku in May. Ring Roads I and III are also included in the trial. The application was tested in Espoo in August last year.

“Based on an initial analysis by VTT, the system is technologically sound for field tests”, says Satu Innamaa, who coordinates the impact assessment at VTT.

She also states that although road maintenance in Finland is among the best in the world, weather conditions in the winter are a challenge for drivers. Access to up-to-date information is a big help.
HERE together with the Finnish transport authorities will recruit 1,000 people for the trial, who will download the application onto their smart phones. The impact assessment compiles information on the effectiveness and usefulness of the system.

“If, for example, a driver spots an animal on the road, he can press a button to warn other nearby vehicles”, explains Project Coordinator Mika Rytkönen from HERE.

It takes a few seconds to process the data first and to identify the cars in and near the affected area.
“As using a mobile phone while driving is against the law, all the buttons, letters and colour contrasts in the interface are large”, Rytkönen explains.

According to Rytkönen, privacy issues have also been taken into consideration. Messages cannot be linked to the sender’s mobile number.

“In the future, it will be possible to send messages using sensor and radar data collected by automated vehicles”, Rytkönen says.

Many car manufacturers have promised to bring out automated cars by 2020.

As guests exit the car, each is brought a glass of sparkling wine on a hover tray. I remember how difficult all this was in the past. Ordering staff and deliveries to a location far away would have been expensive and giving directions to everyone was almost impossible”, continues technological visionary Risto Linturi in his 2030 scenario.

Consumer experience

The results of VTT’s impact assessment will provide an idea of how drivers have perceived the piloted service. What help could be derived from the service and the warnings given by the system? How did test users feel about sending messages while driving? What should be taken into consideration in the further development of the system?

Ultimately, it is the needs of consumers that will determine the future of the NordicWay project.

Commercialisation

The aim of the pilot project is to build a harmonised communication system for the Nordic countries. There is also co-operation across Europe. In practice, this means that all drivers would have access to the same services across national borders.

The NordicWay project is hoped to provide more information about the needs of road users and the commercialisation of similar services. The lessons learnt from the project can be used as the basis for new ideas and also to explore export potential.​

The Finnish Transport Agency is working in close co-operation with potential service providers in Finland, helping them to form networks with European partners.

If successful, the project could have a huge impact on the national economy.


 

 

 

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