Volkswagen Group Innovation engineers are working on optimising autonomous driving systems with some prototypes on a racing track. The main goal is safety.
Norbert, Susi, Walter and Dieter. These are not people, but nicknames assigned by Volkswagen Group Innovation specialists to four car prototypes: an Audi RS7 Sportback, two Volkswagen Golf GTI Performance and a Passat Variant. They are all able to drive completely autonomously, and have computers and other equipment hidden in their boots.
Around 25 engineers, from the Braunschweig and Wolfsburg offices, have come to the Portuguese Portimao race track to test out their projects, optimise them and present them to colleagues of the individual Group’s brands. It is a unique opportunity, because the technologies being tested here will generally not be available in series production cars for another ten or fifteen years.
From mechanics to electronics
The work of these specialists has nothing to do with vehicle mechanics or calibrating suspension systems: their bread and butter is data cables and radio signals. In the pits there is a row of connected tablets, the “tools of the trade”: the creators of Norbert, Susi, Walter and Dieter are all IT experts accustomed to using complicated algorithms and neural networks to make the cars of the future ever-more intelligent.
So why, then, the track testing? Well, if a car has to drive itself, the computer managing it must be an expert driver. As things stand, some of these prototypes are already able to perform a fast lap without any human intervention.
Choosing the line
Unlike the famous demonstration of a few years ago, in which an RS7 drove around the Hockenheim circuit at full speed before the German GP, there is no information pre-loaded on the cars used at Portimao, except the map of the track. Each vehicle chooses the line it determines to be best. What it still has to learn is to relate this to variables such as, for instance, tyre consumption, because obviously when tyre performance drops, it is not possible to follow the same line at the same speed.
So, if the car knows that the tyres no longer offer optimum grip, it can change its driving style as a result. Obviously, implementing this behaviour requires complex computer code.
Working directly on the track means being able to make corrections and adjustments in real time, without having to wait to get back to the office. Moreover, teamwork is key, so much so that scientists from Stanford University and TU Darmstadt are present alongside the Volkswagen specialists.
Over and above development times for autonomous driving, all the work being done will also provide benefits to those driving “standard” cars, above all in terms of safety, helping to approach the ultimate vision of zero road fatalities.
Goodbye steering wheel!
Steer-by-wire is another technology which opens up incredible possibilities. The steering wheel could potentially be replaced by a joypad or be completely removed, or steering could even be controlled by more than one passenger inside the vehicle, for instance to give the driver a rest during a long journey, but without having to change places with them.
Another important area for investigation is what happens between the steering wheel and the wheels when the driver resumes control, in other words the switch from autonomous to driver-bound driving: this procedure must also be perfectly synchronised.
Finally, there is the matter of the driving sensations that a vehicle creates, which is an essential part of any brand. What will happen to this when cars can drive themselves? This is what the team known as Brand DNA is studying. We’ll know more in a few years.
Source: Volkswagen AG