A test team from the self-driving technology company Sensible 4 is traveling to the Finnish arctic area of Muonio to perform a 2-week-long autonomous winter driving test in dark and snowy conditions. The goal of the autonomous driving testing is to collect winter data and ascertain how new features in their software perform in harsh winter conditions.
Muonio is a village in northwest Lapland located on the E8 highway that travels the Finland/Sweden border. To enable real autonomous driving in all weather conditions, real data needs to be collected, including in a place like Muonio during the freezing winter of the Finnish Lapland.
Managing harsh weather conditions is a requirement to make autonomous vehicles fully functional. “Bad weather is one of the biggest challenges for autonomous vehicles. Our strength is to cope with varying weather conditions, and, if the software works in difficult Finnish conditions, it will work also in sunny California,” says Tommi Rimpiläinen, the chief operating officer of Sensible 4, which develops software for all-weather autonomous vehicles and has headquarters in the Helsinki area. “Lapland has the best possible winter testing conditions for autonomous vehicles. It provides low temperatures, snow, and darkness, which is good for testing driving and sensor technology even in extreme conditions.”
The tests will be conducted during week 50 and 51. The last time Sensible 4 visited Muonio for autonomous driving testing was in winter, 2018. Then the tests were done with the small Renault Twizy named “Juto,” Sensible 4’s first test vehicle. Since then, Sensible 4 has automated vehicles from different manufacturers.
The newest Muonio data will be crucial for further developing Sensible 4 autonomous driving kit’s algorithms. For the best possible data regarding the weather, Sensible 4 uses Vaisala weather instruments to measure the conditions of Muonio winter roads.
The company’s current work evolved from 30 years of experience in mobile robotics. Its goal is to answer a problem that has troubled the industry of self-driving cars — the issue of weather. The idea was that if self-driving vehicles ever were going to be part of our everyday life, they had to function everywhere, all the time.
The name Sensible 4 was chosen to represent what the team felt was a sensible Level 4 approach to self-driving as well as its ability for the autonomy to be fully functional during all 4 seasons.
The founders of Sensible 4 have been developing autonomous vehicles since the ‘80s. In February 2020, Sensible 4 secured 7 million dollars in series A funding round from Japanese investors.
A Commercial All-Weather Level 4 Shuttle Bus Software
The upcoming winter tests play a vital role in enabling the first commercial launch of Dawn, Sensible 4’s autonomous driving kit solution. A commercial all-weather software product, Dawn is destined for SAE level 4 driverless last-mile shuttles.
Dawn’s level 4 self-driving software enables transit without a safety driver. It will be the first commercial software in the world to handle driving in all weather conditions and environments and has a target date of 2022 for release.
“This first release will have remote assistance, and it works both day and night in all weather conditions, like rain, snow, sun, and fog,” states CEO Harri Santamala. The software is easily integrated into shuttle bus platforms and on-demand services. It enables dynamic routing inside a geofenced area. “This means, the shuttle bus can pick-up and drop off passengers inside the area but outside the actual routes.”
The product is made for public and private last-mile transportation service in a restricted area, for example, in industrial parks, airports, and campuses. It’s aimed at shuttle buses that carry 6-20 passengers. “No purpose-built infrastructure is needed. Dawn enables driving in mixed traffic with a maximum speed of 40km/h,” Santamala explains. “The pilots are carried out for learning and development; they are increasing in complexity to be ready for the commercial launch.”
The technology has won multiple awards, including 1st place in the Dubai World Challenge for Self-Driving Transport 2019 competition and the Finnish Engineering Prize in 2020.
Sensible 4’s all-weather performance is a result of in-house methods and algorithms for effective 3D LiDAR data processing, intelligent sensor fusion system, artificial intelligence, and software controlling the vehicle platform. The product has the in-trajectory overtaking capability, and it provides integration to shuttle bus platforms.
Piloting continues soon in Lapland and Norway as well as next year in the United Arab Emirates, Germany, and Japan.
In Autonomy: The Quest to Build the Driverless Car… and How It Will Reshape Our World, Lawrence D. Burns describes a transportation future where we “safely and conveniently use autonomous vehicles to take us where we want to go” (p. 1). The book points to a future in which our trips will primarily take place in a 2-seater electric vehicle (EV) hailed through a car-sharing company. As users, we’ll pay a “monthly subscription fee in exchange for on-demand use of a company vehicle for a certain number of miles per month” (p. 228). Autonomy helps us to understand this future reality by taking us back to the beginning of robotic transportation research. It’s a good and recommended read.
Autonomous driving is based on software, including algorithms computing the sensor fusion and driving decisions. Research is starting to show that the use of less than full automation can be more dangerous than either full self-driving cars, because drivers are more likely to abuse the systems as they falsely gain trust in them. A group of business leaders and public policy experts is launching a new organization called the Commission on The Future of Mobility to grapple with the thorny questions that surround the future of transportation including self driving and electric vehicles; the commission will function within the framework of SAFE, which stands for Securing America’s Future Energy.
In the US, manufacturers like Waymo, GM, or Tesla right now are self-regulating their driving assist and autonomous driving systems. If an accident happens from an autonomously driving vehicle system, the manufacturer is responsible and risks paying many millions of dollars. The burden to test, validate, and approve of a system as safe is primarily the responsibility of the experts of that system.
Questions that arise when full self-driving vehicles are on the world’s roads are raised in the documentary, Autonomy. The film chronicles the human side of emerging self-driving technology, tracing what Ford VP Ken Washington calls in the film “the representative symbol of mobility” from classic cars to today’s software influence on transportation.
Until we can find autonomous vehicles on most of our city streets, we’ll look for pilot programs that that of Sensible 4 to learn more about Level 4 technology in practice in all kinds of weather.