► JLR autonomous tech
►'Level 4' system on RR Sport
► Coming to a street near you?
Jaguar Land Rover has taken the next step in its ‘Level 4’ autonomy programme, by demonstrating its self-driving Range Rover Sport on a public trial in Milton Keynes, after a private demo at MIRA.
The Rangie SUV pictured is fitted with prototype technology that means it can drive itself, including selecting gears, indicating and being aware of both traffic light intersections and roundabouts.
Find out about the autonomous car levels 1 to 5 here
Autonomous Range Rover demo in Milton Keynes
Our ride in the back of a Level 4-equipped Range Rover Sport was a newer model from the earlier test we experienced at MIRA. In fact, the MIRA demo car was used as a support vehicle for the latest trial in Milton Keynes.
While we were out on public roads, Jim O’Donoghue, one of JLR’s autonomous engineers, talked us through the demonstration process. An iPad attached to the dashboard acted as the ‘Autodrive’ system, showing up a map and a pre-determined point. The car was activated, heading out to that point from a different part of central Milton Keynes.
The car had to take into account traffic, lane discipline and stopped relatively smoothly at several sets of traffic lights mostly without any intervention. On a couple of occasions, the vehicle was hesitant on accelerating away from green traffic lights and came to a lurchy stop more than once, but crossed intersections with aplomb and kept abreast of what other road users were doing, including keeping enough distance between the car in front. It even reacted to someone brazenly running across the road in front of it, braking when it recognised the pedestrian was too close.
However, some of the autonomous drive systems rely on cellular networks, so when it came to a particular lane change, the Range Rover Sport deviated a little too far from the lane it was driving into, prompting Jim to take the wheel. ‘But that’s the beauty of the [Level 4] system – I can easily regain control of the car,’ Jim points out.
‘We use a particular mobile network, and we’re going to have a look into a dual-sim system [to alleviate the network issues],’ he added, ‘We haven’t encountered problems until we’ve been here, to be fair, so it’s a new area we’re looking into as a result of that.’ It's an issue, but without the demonstration coming to Milton Keynes, the team wouldn't have found that out as quickly as they have done.
Find out about the autonomous car levels 1 to 5 here
The Range Rover also sought out its own parking space at the end of its route, picking out a spot in a car park at the opposite end of Milton Keynes, indicated, selected reverse and backed into it without a problem.
Autonomous Range Rover: the MIRA test
A small test track at the MIRA facility has been designed to facilitate the testing of autonomous vehicles. Amy Rimmer, Jaguar Land Rover’s lead engineer for Autonomous Vehicle Control, said: ‘MIRA designed this circuit just for testing autonomous cars. It’s set up with deliberately challenging aspects to it, as if it were an urban environment.’
As this is a ‘Level 4’ autonomous system (i.e. it can operate in certain environments with the absolute bare minimum of human driver intervention), the car isn’t just carrying out specific tasks in specific environments; this Range Rover knows exactly where it is. ‘It’s the first time we’ve been able to demonstrate a car that truly knows where it is, truly knows where it’s going and the steps needed to get to its destination,’ said Mark Cund, JLR’s Autonomous Vehicle Control Manager.
The whole MIRA track is plotted on what looks like your average sat-nav screen and started at what was defined as ‘Home’ on the map. Two other pre-set points on the map system were plotted and ready for selection: ‘Work’ and ‘Gym’. Neither seemed particularly appealing but we chose ‘Work’, and then selected ‘Auto Drive’ on the screen to engage the autonomous driving system.
The Range Rover took about 20 seconds to initialise, but then selected Drive and indicated out of the layby we were in on its own. The steering twisted to the right and we pulled out smoothly, while Amy sat in the driver's seat not touching a thing.
The route took us to a sharp downhill T-junction and indicated right. There was about 30 seconds of hesitation from the system before it decided to pull out of its own accord. It then took on roundabouts, traffic lights and twisting corners with little fuss to its destination.
The autonomous programming system is almost entirely deterministic, with the only artificial intelligence coming from a webcam that was detecting traffic lights. This was why the system felt hesitant at times to pull out of junctions despite there being no traffic; the Range Rover decides purely on its own how and when to pull out.
‘If we wanted to make it a really smooth demo, we could have just recorded a really good human drive and replayed it back. It probably would have been a more premium experience but obviously that’s not quite as representative’, said Rimmer.
The demo wasn’t just to showcase the talents of Amy, Mark and the engineering team, either. Cund explained that the test ‘identifies things we know we need to focus on’ before testing on public roads begins later this year.
When will we see tech like this on production cars?
Not for quite a while. We'll see 'Level 3' autonomy very soon, as Audi has promised its new A8 exec will be one of the first commercially available cars with it onboard.
The kit seen here, however, is quite a way off for now. Plenty of car makers are developing their own self-driving cars at their own pace. The earliest we could see systems in place like this will be within the next decade but that’s entirely dependent on the huge hurdles facing car makers.
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