Close this search box.

The evolution of the driverless vehicle


Tomorrow (28 May) sees a driverless vehicle competition take place in the Netherlands, featuring – among others – am autonomous Volvo FH16 from a team of developers who claim the animal kingdom is their inspiration.
The competition is part of an EU project called the Grand Cooperative Driving Challenge, and takes place the A270 motorway between Helmond and Eindhoven in the Netherlands.

The team from Sweden’s Chalmers University will be one of between 10 ad 15 universities taking part, and believe the future development of autonomous driving systems will need to take its inspiration from the natural world rather than engineering.

The Chalmers’ team leader, Ola Benderius, thinks the dominant approach to vehicle development – which is to constantly base progress on earlier models and gradually add new functions – won’t necessarily work in the autonomous world.

“Traditionally, the aim has been to try to separate and differentiate all conceivable problems and tackle them using dedicated functions, which means that the system must cover a large number of scenarios. You can cover a large number of different cases, but sooner or later the unexpected occurs, and that’s when an accident could happen.”

Benderius’s team of researchers have instead chosen to regard the self-driving vehicle as a completely new type of machine, and think of it as “more like an animal, a biological organism, than a technical system.”

“Biological systems are the best autonomous systems we know of. A biological system absorbs information from its surroundings via its senses and reacts directly and safely, like an antelope running within its herd, or a hawk pouncing on its prey on the ground. Before humans walked the earth, nature already had a solution, so let’s learn from that,” Benderius continued.

There is an aphorism that is attributed to Henry Ford, the great pioneer of mass motor vehicle development, that had he asked people in the pre-car era what they wanted most (in transport terms) they wouldn’t have asked for a horseless carriage, they’d have asked for a faster horse.

Serious step changes in development often require entirely new approaches to situations, which Benderius seems well aware of.

In the Chalmers’ Volvo FH1, data from the truck’s sensors and cameras is converted into a format that is meant to resemble the way humans and animals interpret the world around them.

Instead of just one large central processing unit with dedicated functions for all conceivable situations, the Chalmers team is developing small and general behavioural blocks that aim to make the truck react to different situations.

The truck is programmed to constantly keep all stimuli within reasonable levels, and it will even continuously learn to do this as efficiently as possible. This makes the framework extremely flexible and good at managing sudden and new dangers, according to Benderius.

“We are trying to design a system that adapts to whatever happens, without pointing to specific situations – and this is something that even the simplest animals can usually do better than existing vehicle solutions.”

The autonomous vehicle sector promises much to the freight and delivery sectors, but there are substantial obstacles to be overcome. At the engineering level the mechanics of how you enable a self-driving vehicle to respond safely soon blend into a philosophical and ethical discussion about how a machine can make judgement calls; faced with an unavoidable head-on collision, would it choose to swerve one way into oncoming traffic, or the other way and mount the pavement?

The insurance industry may yet have the last laugh, should it determine the risks represented by autonomous vehicles are so great that they either can’t be insured or attract prohibitively high premiums.

A more likely scenario is that elements of autonomous vehicle technology will find their way into regular vehicles in the form of enhancements and improvements to braking, handling, driver alert systems, and so on.

See also:

Google enters last mile fight with autonomous delivery trucks

Driverless HGVs hit the M6, the sharing economy hits Italy, shoppers hit C&C overload

Read More

Register for Newsletter

Group 4 Copy 3Created with Sketch.

Receive 3 newsletters per week

Group 3Created with Sketch.

Gain access to all Top500 research

Group 4Created with Sketch.

Personalise your experience on