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The ‘shoal of fish’ era of safe driverless cars is getting closer

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Dr Charlie Wartnaby, chief engineer at IDIADA, in the self-driving vehicle in Milton. Picture: Keith Heppell
Dr Charlie Wartnaby, chief engineer at IDIADA, in the self-driving vehicle in Milton. Picture: Keith Heppell

When the automotive industry finally gets round to putting the first fully self-driving vehicles on UK roads, it may well be with collision safety technology created by IDIADA Automotive Technology.

IDIADA’s 30-strong team is based in Milton. The company is owned by Applus, a worldwide leader in the testing, inspection and certification sector headquartered in Spain.

The project – called MuCCA, for Multi-Car Collision Avoidance – began in 2017. The £4.6m, 30-month prototype has been funded by the Centre for Connected and Autonomous Vehicles (CCAV) via Innovate UK. The goal is to develop a next-generation driver aid that avoids multi-car collisions on motorways.

IDIADA’s chief engineer is Charlie Wartnaby, who was also at the firm when it was Oakington-based Pi Innovo – it was acquired by Applus in 2015.

“Of the 30 people here, the greater number are software and systems engineers, and a lot of safety engineers,” he says.

Charlie considers autonomous vehicles en masse as “a hive mind” or “a shoal of fish”.

“The clever bit is the cars are talking to each other and between them they can work out how to avoid driving into objects,” he explains. “The crux of it is to help each other to avoid crashing.”

The company bought a car and refitted it with technology based around an IDAPT box designed by the MuCCA team. The IDAPT box uses an AI-based neural network model and vehicle-to-everything (V2X) radio to navigate through the environment. Check the video to see how it works:

“It’s a ground-up design from the PCB up which includes a graphics processor, a vehicle-to-vehicle link and wifi. We did the integration, designed where the switches are and where the screen and USB ports go.

“We used a camera rather than sensors, although combining it with LIDAR and radar would be a possible future option.”

The box – pictured below in its boot berth – analyses the picture, identifies the vehicles in it, and from how big they are works out its direction and size every 33 milliseconds.

“It also controls the steering, accelerator and brakes – it’s fully automatic. The person is just a passenger.”

It should be added that to test the car – trials took place at Bruntingthorpe Proving Ground in Leicestershire and Bourn Airfield – it needed to have driver-controlled functionality.

“It’s the co-operative behaviour that no one else has done,” Charlie says of a video demonstrating how the cars drive: the vehicles move sedately along, gently negotiating their way along a motorway through traffic.

“It’s 25mph for the video, we’re constrained by the safety case. Showing full-sized cars like this doing fully automatic cooperative manoeuvres we think is a world first, at least in collision avoidance.”

IDIADA has already signed up one customer - it owns the IP - and is looking to offer the technology to others.

“Nobody else is offering this,” Charlie notes.

The first wave of autonomous vehicles will be automated shuttles at airports, he believes, followed by driverless cars for motorway use only, and automated taxis after that.

Before coronavirus, autonomous cars were still two years away, but with so much emphasis on digitising the economy, who’s to say the business case for driverless cars won’t be brought forward to next week? And when it happens, IDIADA will be ready to make the roads far safer than they had been before the pandemic arrived. Perhaps the changeover should start sooner rather than later?

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