Three years to prepare Europe and Belgium for ‘talking’ cars
The European CONCORDA project got underway at the end of 2017. Test sites with communication infrastructure for self-driving cars will be set up or expanded in five countries: Germany, the Netherlands, Spain, France and Belgium. We should point out here that these are not driverless cars along the lines of Google Car. Whereas Google aims to develop cars that will be able to operate completely autonomously from other vehicles, taking their own decisions and driving based on hundreds of sensors, radar units, cameras and a detailed map of the surrounding area, the CONCORDA project instead involves cooperative, connected cars that exchange information with each other and their environment as they carry out a specific ‘task’, ‘together’.
A different sort of test site is being set up in each of the participating countries so that the research can be complementary: freeways with heavy and less heavy traffic, highways with fewer or more exits, supplemented by national, regional and urban roads at specific test sites. In all, twenty-six partners – car manufacturers, telecoms operators and providers, road authorities and research institutions – have joined hands to develop the building blocks needed along the roads and inside the vehicles to create cooperative and connected driverless cars.
The beginning of 2018 saw the start of the first part of the ‘Smart Highway project’, an initiative by the Flemish government. Smart Highway is complementary to the CONCORDA project and focuses on location technology, driver monitoring and the construction of a prototype onboard unit (i.e. the hardware used inside the car so that it can communicate with other vehicles and with the road infrastructure). This onboard unit gives imec the opportunity to use its own software in the car. In fact what Flanders wants to do is test a whole series of technologies as soon as possible so that vehicles have a smart way of communicating with each other, resulting in fewer traffic jams and accidents. The connected self-driving car is the ultimate goal in this instance.
In the CONCORDA project, imec is working with KU Leuven and the Flemish government’s department for mobility and public works. In the Smart Highway project, we have joined forces with Flanders Make.
Imec is coordinating both the Flemish segment of CONCORDA and Smart Highway. This is because imec has a great deal of expertise in connecting driverless cars with each other and having them work together: technology for wireless communication between cars and with the road infrastructure, location technology (using communication networks and radar) and sensors for monitoring the health and alertness of the driver.
Fewer accidents and traffic jams
Today, some cars already have highly advanced cruise control systems that don’t allow you to get too close to the car in front of you. They can also tell you when it’s safe to change lanes and they keep an eye on the speed restrictions, etc. Clever: so what will the next step be?
Experts believe in platoons, in which trucks – and also private cars at a later stage – drive along at a short, fixed distance from each other, without the driver having to take any action. In the near term, this will be achievable for trucks that all have to take the same route, for example from the port of Antwerp to Rotterdam. In this case, there would be several platoon routes and trucks could join a particular platoon. The Netherlands – where the CONCORDA project is also running – believes strongly in truck platooning. The system will already be applied commercially in 2019 on a limited scale, for example to drive into and out of the port of Rotterdam.
In Belgium, the focus of the CONCORDA project is on the ‘highway chauffeur’, which is similar to a highly advanced cruise control for freeways. And to make driving safer, cars will be able to communicate with both the road infrastructure itself, as well as with other vehicles. For instance, they will automatically take note of the road signs (e.g. speed limits), receive plenty of warning in real-time of when there are roadworks ahead, if there is an obstacle somewhere in the road, when an ambulance is approaching, when there’s a car halted on the roadway or alongside it, etc. Work is also being carried out on automatic driving systems that operate with other cars (known as ‘cooperative autonomous driving’). What happens is that one car receives information about conditions on the road from other vehicles driving ahead of it and the adaptive cruise control system takes that information into account. ‘Cooperative maneuvering’ is one of the options available. This is where changing lane is a coordinated maneuver that avoids a car having to jam on its brakes suddenly as the result of an unexpected maneuver by another car.