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Autonomous vehicles can follow the general rules of American roads, recognizing traffic signals and lane markings, noticing crosswalks and other regular features of the streets. But they work only on well-marked roads that are carefully scanned and mapped in advance.
Many paved roads, though, have faded paint, signs obscured behind trees and unusual intersections. In addition, 1.4 million miles of U.S. roads—one-third of the country’s public roadways—are unpaved, with no on-road signals like lane markings or stop-here lines. That doesn’t include miles of private roads, unpaved driveways or off-road trails.
What’s a rule-following autonomous car to do when the rules are unclear or nonexistent? And what are its passengers to do when they discover their vehicle can’t get them where they’re going?
Accounting for the Obscure
Most challenges in developing advanced technologies involve handling infrequent or uncommon situations, or events that require performance beyond a system’s normal capabilities. That’s definitely true for autonomous vehicles. Some on-road examples might be navigating construction zones, encountering a horse and buggy, or seeing graffiti that looks like a stop sign. Off-road, the possibilities include the full variety of the natural world, such as trees down over the road, flooding and large puddles—or even animals blocking the way.
At Mississippi State University’s Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, we have taken up the challenge of training algorithms to respond to circumstances that almost never happen, are difficult to predict and are complex to create. We seek to put autonomous cars in the hardest possible scenario: driving in an area the car has no prior knowledge of, with no reliable infrastructure like road paint and traffic signs, and in an unknown environment where it’s just as likely to see a cactus as a polar bear.
Our work combines virtual technology and the real world. We create advanced simulations of lifelike outdoor scenes, which we use to train artificial intelligence algorithms to take a camera feed and classify what it sees, labeling trees, sky, open paths and potential obstacles. Then we transfer those algorithms to a purpose-built all-wheel-drive test vehicle and send it out on our dedicated off-road test track, where we can see how our algorithms work and collect more data to feed into our simulations.
We have developed a simulator that can create a wide range of realistic outdoor scenes for vehicles to navigate through. The system generates a range of landscapes of different climates, like forests and deserts, and can show how plants, shrubs and trees grow over time. It can also simulate weather changes, sunlight and moonlight, and the accurate locations of 9,000 stars.
The system also simulates the readings of sensors commonly used in autonomous vehicles, such as lidar and cameras. Those virtual sensors collect data that feeds into neural networks as valuable training data.
Simulated desert, meadow and forest environments generated by the Mississippi State University Autonomous Vehicle Simulator. Chris Goodin, Mississippi State University, Author provided.
Building a Test Track
Simulations are only as good as their portrayals of the real world. Mississippi State University has purchased 50 acres of land on which we are developing a test track for off-road autonomous vehicles. The property is excellent for off-road testing, with unusually steep grades for our area of Mississippi—up to 60 percent inclines—and a very diverse population of plants.
We have selected certain natural features of this land that we expect will be particularly challenging for self-driving vehicles, and replicated them exactly in our simulator. That allows us to directly compare results from the simulation and real-life attempts to navigate the actual land. Eventually, we’ll create similar real and virtual pairings of other types of landscapes to improve our vehicle’s capabilities.
A road washout, as seen in real life, left, and in simulation. Chris Goodin, Mississippi State University, Author provided.
Collecting More Data
We have also built a test vehicle, called the Halo Project, which has an electric motor and sensors and computers that can navigate various off-road environments. The Halo Project car has additional sensors to collect detailed data about its actual surroundings, which can help us build virtual environments to run new tests in.
The Halo Project car can collect data about driving and navigating in rugged terrain. Beth Newman Wynn, Mississippi State University, Author provided.
Two of its lidar sensors, for example, are mounted at intersecting angles on the front of the car so their beams sweep across the approaching ground. Together, they can provide information on how rough or smooth the surface is, as well as capturing readings from grass and other plants and items on the ground.
Lidar beams intersect, scanning the ground in front of the vehicle. Chris Goodin, Mississippi State University, Author provided
We’ve seen some exciting early results from our research. For example, we have shown promising preliminary results that machine learning algorithms trained on simulated environments can be useful in the real world. As with most autonomous vehicle research, there is still a long way to go, but our hope is that the technologies we’re developing for extreme cases will also help make autonomous vehicles more functional on today’s roads.
Matthew Doude, Associate Director, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems; Ph.D. Student in Industrial and Systems Engineering, Mississippi State University; Christopher Goodin, Assistant Research Professor, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, Mississippi State University, and Daniel Carruth, Assistant Research Professor and Associate Director for Human Factors and Advanced Vehicle System, Center for Advanced Vehicular Systems, Mississippi State University
This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.
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Each time there’s a headline about driverless trucking technology, another piece is taken out of the old equation. First, an Uber/Otto truck’s safety driver went hands-off once the truck reached the highway (and said truck successfully delivered its valuable cargo of 50,000 beers). Then, Starsky Robotics announced its trucks would start making autonomous deliveries without a human in the vehicle at all.
Now, Volvo has taken the tech one step further. Its new trucks not only won’t have safety drivers, they won’t even have the option of putting safety drivers behind the wheel, because there is no wheel—and no cab, either.
Vera, as the technology’s been dubbed, was unveiled in September, and consists of a sort of flat-Tesla-like electric car with a standard trailer hookup. The vehicles are connected to a cloud service, which also connects them to each other and to a control center. The control center monitors the trucks’ positioning (they’re designed to locate their position to within centimeters), battery charge, load content, service requirements, and other variables. The driveline and battery pack used in the cars are the same as those Volvo uses in its existing electric trucks.
You won’t see these cruising down an interstate highway, though, or even down a local highway. Vera trucks are designed to be used on short, repetitive routes contained within limited areas—think shipping ports, industrial parks, or logistics hubs. They’re limited to slower speeds than normal cars or trucks, and will be able to operate 24/7. “We will see much higher delivery precision, as well as improved flexibility and productivity,” said Mikael Karlsson, VP of Autonomous Solutions at Volvo Trucks. “Today’s operations are often designed according to standard daytime work hours, but a solution like Vera opens up the possibility of continuous round-the-clock operation and a more optimal flow. This in turn can minimize stock piles and increase overall productivity.”
The trucks are sort of like bigger versions of Amazon’s Kiva robots, which scoot around the aisles of warehouses and fulfillment centers moving pallets between shelves and fetching goods to be shipped.
Pairing trucks like Vera with robots like Kiva makes for a fascinating future landscape of logistics and transport; cargo will be moved from docks to warehouses by a large, flat robot-on-wheels, then distributed throughout that warehouse by smaller, flat robots-on-wheels. To really see the automated process through to the end point, even smaller flat robots-on-wheels will be used to deliver peoples’ goods right to their front doors.
Sounds like a lot of robots and not a lot of humans, right? Anticipating its technology’s implication in the ongoing uproar over technological unemployment, Volvo has already made statements about its intentions to continue to employ humans alongside the driverless trucks. “I foresee that there will be an increased level of automation where it makes sense, such as for repetitive tasks. This in turn will drive prosperity and increase the need for truck drivers in other applications,” said Karlsson.
The end-to-end automation concept has already been put into practice in Caofeidian, a northern Chinese city that houses the world’s first fully autonomous harbor, aiming to be operational by the end of this year. Besides replacing human-driven trucks with autonomous ones (made by Chinese startup TuSimple), the port is using automated cranes and a coordinating central control system.
Besides Uber/Otto, Tesla, or Daimler, which are all working on driverless trucks with a more conventional design (meaning they still have a cab and look like you’d expect a truck to look), Volvo also has competition from a company called Einride. The Swedish startup’s electric, cabless T/Pod looks a lot like Vera, but has some fundamental differences. Rather than being tailored to short distances and high capacity, Einride’s trucks are meant for medium distance and capacity, like moving goods from a distribution center to a series of local stores.
Vera trucks are currently still in the development phase. But since their intended use is quite specific and limited (Karlsson noted “Vera is not intended to be a solution for everyone, everywhere”), the technology could likely be rolled out faster than its more general-use counterparts. Having cabless electric trucks take over short routes in closed environments would be one more baby step along the road to a driverless future—and a testament to the fact that self-driving technology will move into our lives and our jobs incrementally, ostensibly giving us the time we’ll need to adapt and adjust.
Image Credit: Volvo Trucks Continue reading